The Justice League - Oscar Romero

The Justice League series of articles charts the stories of justice seekers, martyrs and activists from all over the world. They were originally authored and published between August - December 2014.

A safe bet, they thought.

Yes, Oscar Romero would be a sensible Archbishop to choose. Highly educated, theologically conservative, not one to rock the boat. He’d cause no trouble with the establishment and be a respectable face of the Church in 1977 El Salvador.

Three years later, he was shot dead. So dangerous had this man become that he was taken out by assassins while celebrating Mass.

What can possibly happen to a settled, run-of-the-mill clergyman, a deeply devout, studious and traditional man, to so drastically throw him off course?

The long and the short of it is this: Oscar Romero lived with his eyes wide open and heart directed outwards. He allowed himself to be changed by the world around him, rather than clinging blindly to a theoretical religion, worked out in the comfort of the ivory tower.

In the second half of the 20th century, inequality was a growing problem in El Salvador. Forty percent of the land in the country was owned by just 13 rich families while thousands lived in poverty. Wealth was concentrated in tiny pockets, the state was riddled with corruption, and there was growing unrest among the masses. In order to maintain this unfair state of affairs, the government and the armed groups they had working for them were committing grave human rights abuses against ordinary people. Abductions, torture, massacres.

The Church did well as long as it kept quiet, kept the peace, kept the people happy. By keeping his head down and concentrating on theology rather than politics, Oscar rose through the religious ranks. A safe bet.

But not everyone was out to avoid trouble, and there were those inside and outside the Church pursuing justice. In March 1977, just a few weeks after he’d become Archbishop, Romero’s dear friend Rutilio Grande was killed. He was a young Jesuit priest who’d been working with poor landless farmers. Killed for speaking out against the corruption and injustice he saw. Killed for refusing to turn a blind eye to their plight.

Oscar was profoundly changed. In his own words,

“If they killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.”

He took up the justice baton and ran with everything he had.

Dangerous as it was, Romero began using his religious platform to call for an end to human rights abuses and state-endorsed corruption. He delivered sermons on the radio to thousands of people, urging them too to open their eyes. He took his case to everyone from US President Jimmy Carter to Pope John Paul II. And to everyone with a vested interest in maintaining injustice, Oscar Romero became a very dangerous man.

On 24 March 1980, Oscar stood up to preach what would be his last ever sermon. Just the day before, he’d spoken directly to those serving in El Salvador’s army, imploring them to obey God before the government, to refuse to carry out the injustices they were charged to commit. And with that, he was shot. His blood spilled over the altar in front of him.

It’s much easier to stay blind. It’s much easier to stay safe. It’s much easier to persuade ourselves that it’s worthwhile being on the right side of those in power. Perhaps we can gently change things from the inside. My own theological study was from a cosy Oxford library. I’m tempted towards the comfort of the establishment, the stability and status that comes from being accepted by the power players as one of their own. And for my own comfort, I’m tempted to turn a blind eye to plenty of injustice.

But for Oscar Romero, there was no option. When tragedy could have encased him in a hard bitter shell, he allowed it to impassion and awaken him. A life of faith, Romero knew, is a dangerous life lived with eyes, heart and hands wide open. So like Romero, I want to be deeply changed by the reality of the world, and deeply changed by the reality of God.