When the Gospel Gets Under Your Skin

Saints are made by how they live,

Saints are made by how they live, not how they die. In March and April, the people’s church remembers two saints: El Salvador’s Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero and Germany’s Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While their deaths were "spectacular" - Romero gunned down while saying Mass and Bonhoeffer hanged in a Nazi concentration camp - it is their lives, not their deaths, that teach us about Christian faith.

This year, the date of Romero’s assassination falls on Holy Thursday. As Jesus knelt to wash the feet of his disciples in an act of revolutionary humility, I imagine the many times Romero knelt. Praying as a teenager for his vocation, which prompted him to leave the carpenter shop and go to seminary. Prostrating himself before a bishop at his ordination in Rome on April 4, 1942. Romero’s doctoral degree was in ascetical theology. He wanted to be holy. I imagine him kneeling before a statue of the Virgin with a rosary in his hand.

Romero knelt on February 22, 1977, when he was made archbishop of San Salvador - the church and ruling class were relieved that a politically and theologically conservative priest was at the helm. Two weeks later, Romero was kneeling over the bullet-riddled bodies of his friend and fellow priest Rutilio Grande and the old man and boy Grande had been traveling with. The people say something changed in Romero that day. He cancelled all the Masses in the archdiocese except for Grande’s memorial service. He demanded that the military investigate the murders. The quiet, humble priest to the status quo stood up straight, raised his voice to the thousands of Salvadorans gathered in the plaza and listening by radio, and said: "Whoever touches one of my priests has to deal with me!"

Seventy thousand Salvadorans were killed during El Salvador’s bitter war. Romero became known as the people’s archbishop. He knelt over more bodies than anyone can count - until Monday, March 24, 1980, when parishioners knelt over him. According to the report of the U.N. Truth Commission, "Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez was celebrating Mass in the chapel of the Hospital de la Divina Providencia when he was killed by a professional assassin who fired a single .22 or .223 caliber bullet from a red, four-door Volkswagen vehicle. The bullet hit its mark, causing the Archbishop’s death from severe bleeding."

In June 1942, not long after Romero’s ordination in Rome, provisional gas chamber II began full-scale operation at a German prison camp near Auschwitz. Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent much of 1942 using his international ecumenical contacts to help a handful of Jews escape to Switzerland.

When Bonhoeffer decided to study theology - rather than follow his father and brothers in psychiatry or physics - his family laughed. Eberhard Bethge wrote, "the church to which [Bonhoeffer] proposed to devote himself was a poor, feeble, boring, petty bourgeois institution." This weak institution was soon swayed by the heresy that it should mold itself to Hitler’s new era, which demanded "freedom for all religious denominations in the State, provided they do not threaten its existence nor offend the moral feelings of the German race."

In this historical tension, Bonhoeffer organized an illegal seminary at Finkenwalde; was banned from Berlin because of his anti-government preaching; promoted the Barmen Declaration, which called for Christians to counter the government’s theological claims; couriered news of the German resistance movement to the outside world; smuggled Jews out of Germany; and eventually became involved in a plot to kill Hitler, knowing that Matthew 26:52 ("all who live by the sword shall die by the sword") would also apply to him. "It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is," wrote Bonhoeffer, "but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world." On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested. Two years later on April 9, 1945, he was hanged at the Flossenbürg detention camp, where an estimated 73,000 people were killed.

On April 16, 1978, Oscar Romero preached a sermon that Bonhoeffer would have applauded. "A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed," said Romero, "what gospel is that?"

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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