The Scandal of Oscar Romero’s God

Commentary
By Aarik Danielsen 10-12-2018
John Paul II and Oscar Romero.

Throughout The Scandal of Redemption, Oscar Romero identifies a God who has a balanced concern for individual hearts and the souls of nations.

The book, which collects sermons, radio transcripts, and diary entries from Romero’s three years as archbishop of San Salvador, comes at a crucial time. Romero, pierced by an assassin’s bullet in 1980, will be canonized by the Catholic Church this weekend. A saint in every way we use the word, the life this book sketches is a timeless model for faithful political resistance and spiritual revival.

To know anything of Romero’s life journey — from unremarkable priest to social reformer and eventual martyr — is to connect the dots between who he became and who he believed in.

Not a particularly loud or radical voice at the time of his appointment, Romero was considered a “safe” choice for his post. His faith was transformed after the murder of a fellow priest pulled back the curtain on the darkness and discord in his country.

Keeping the faith and fighting for the least of these was Romero’s offering of worship to God. To preach the kingdom of God, he said, meant “pointing out sin in any human situation, even when the sin is found in political and economic situations.”

Romero believed in a God who was big and on the move, calling God “the architect of history,” “cornerstone of all human movements,” and the “compass that guides all of history toward its true destiny.” This belief propelled him into a dangerous world while being sure that God would not abandon his people or his own blueprint for justice and healing.

Romero would not settle for less than the complete liberation of his neighbors. He longed to help people “be more” and not simply “have more.” Romero’s refusal to separate physical and spiritual redemption, or a nation’s destiny from the people who inhabit it, meant rejecting false choices about the nature of his work and denying the often-self-imposed limits on the church’s potential.

These false choices persist today; here, Romero’s situation and our American moment overlap. To him, there was no such thing as a safe church, or one that took its cues from oppressive powers.

“A church that does not provoke crisis, a gospel that does not disturb, a word of God that does not rankle, a word of God that does not touch the concrete sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed — what kind of gospel is that?” Just nice, pious considerations that bother nobody — that’s the way many people would like our preaching to be.”

Nevertheless, the church must be known as much for consolation as critique. Being defined by what it was against could never be enough, he reasoned. “The church must not only denounce what is wrong but must also announce hope,” he said.

Romero longed to see a whole country made up of whole people who participate in a glorious, physical communion of the saints. “As long as evangelization does not lead to a community, it is incomplete,” he said. Romero also insisted that the church embrace its wholly unique calling: becoming fully human and helping others do the same.

Romero’s God levels a charge against the American church, and at any church that treats personal salvation and political solidarity as mutually exclusive. Like Martin Luther King Jr. before him, Romero’s gospel imagination leaves little room for moderates whose voices justify the status quo.

And yet, Romero’s God has no interest in hardened hearts or a righteousness that writes anyone off. Both the oppressed and the oppressor need spiritual overhaul. His God finds nothing special in the activist who is right about the state of the world yet lacks love — or the minister who preaches beautifully but demands nothing from the church.

At a time when disgust comes natural and hope feels like something to ration, the true scandal of Romero’s God is that he will not leave us alone — to our devices, traditions or sects.

God will not allow us to grow cynical, calcified, or cool to the touch. Instead, this God constantly massages life and warmth back into our fleshy hearts, then ushers us out the door to offer the same communion wine to tyrants and to those who are broken.

Well before his sainthood became official, Romero believed that we become most fully alive with a true vision of God in sight: “... A saint is nothing else than the full realization of a life according to the design of God.”

Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. 

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