The inauguration of Francis as the Bishop of Rome has raised the old issue of the church and politics. Francis was leader of the Jesuits in Argentina in the 1970’s, a time of political turmoil throughout Central and South America. At the same time, a man named Oscar Romero was the Archbishop of El Salvador, a country which then was run, like Argentina, by a brutal regime. Like Francis, he was also a Jesuit.
Archbishop Romero was unafraid to criticize the government of El Salvador, or anyone else, who was abusing people, especially those who were poor. In some of his first public words, he said,
The Christian must work to exclude sin and establish God’s reign. To struggle for this is not communism. To struggle for this is not to mix in politics. It is simply that the Gospel demands of today’s Christian more commitment to history.
By this he meant that how the world is unfolding, and the forces that are directly affecting the lives of women and men, are absolute concerns of God, and, therefore, of the Church. We cannot in our day and age (if we ever could) afford pie-in-the-sky religion.
Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980, 33 years ago today, as he was leading Mass in a hospital chapel. The day before, he had called on soldiers to disobey orders that violated human rights. Nine months later four Maryknoll nuns were also assassinated in El Salvador. We remember them on this day in the Episcopal Church as Oscar Romero and the Martyrs of El Salvador.
Romero was simply repeating a pattern in his life which he believed had been the pattern of Jesus’ life. We have just heard the story of that pattern playing itself out.
It is easy to read the story of Jesus’ final few days as if it were ahistorical, as if it occurred in a bubble outside of time. If you read it like that, furthermore, you can easily believe that this story is solely about how every individual is saved by the mercy of God and the sacrifice of his Son. But much more than that is going on here. This was a moment in history, and so it is not only a story about how we get into heaven. It is also a story about how we live on earth.
Let’s go back to the beginning of this Service to the Gospel reading about the procession into Jerusalem. Notice that Jesus is doing something very deliberate. First of all we had been told way back in chapter nine that Jesus had “set his face to go toward Jerusalem” (9:51). And here he is arriving, and he wants to make a statement in doing so. The riding of a donkey recalls the kings of Israel, and Zechariah the prophet had foreseen a day when a new king would enter Jerusalem on a donkey (9:9).
What’s going on here? Why this funny little parade of peasants using language as if they had power that they clearly did not have.
It was almost Passover, and right around this time another procession would have entered Jerusalem, the procession of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, with a cast of hundreds, most of them Roman foot soldiers. The Roman governors chose not to live in Jerusalem, but in Caesarea Maritima, on the coast, about sixty miles to the west.
It was the governors’ custom to come to Jerusalem for the great Jewish holy days, and bring a lot of soldiers with him, because the city would swell with pilgrims and the chances for trouble increased exponentially. This was especially true at Passover, when the Jews were celebrating their liberation from another empire.
Pilate’s procession would have been truly impressive, a clear demonstration of Roman power, but also of Roman theology. The Emperor was, after all, the “Son of God,” who was called “savior of the world” because of the peace Rome had brought everywhere it had conquered, the Pax Romana.
The Pax Romana, however, was built on and guaranteed by violence, the experience of violence and the threat of violence. One powerful sign of this was the crosses outside every major city and town, where lawbreakers and rebels slowly and horrifically died in Rome’s favorite way of threatening people into peace.
Jesus and his followers enter Jerusalem speaking of peace as well.
Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.
But this peace would not be secured by violence. God was not going to war with the Roman Empire. Jesus did not seek to rule in place of either King Herod or Pontius Pilate. Quite the opposite, the Pax Christi would be secured by giving in, by letting the violence of the Pax Romana have its way with him. And so it did.
This Jesus whom they crucified, whom we crucified, is always calling us to a new way of life, the risky way of Pax Christi instead of Pax Romana, which is to say the way of vulnerability offered in love which brings peace or the way of violence that keeps us threatened enough to be quiet.
In preaching on the latter portion of Luke’s passion reading—the death of Jesus—Oscar Romero said this:
The church is calling to sanity, to understanding, to love. It does not believe in violent solutions. The church believes in only one violence, that of Christ, who was nailed to the cross. That is how today’s Gospel reading shows him, taking upon himself all the violence of hatred and misunderstanding, so that we humans might forgive one another, love one another, feel ourselves brothers and sisters.