Preaching the Scandal: Romero on Agrarian Reform

By Douglas Radamez Barahona, Giobanny Ascencio y Raul Lemus
Grupo Cinteupiltzin CENAR El Salvador (Mural pintado con acrílico y óleos)
GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Lately, I've become increasingly engrossed with the life and legacy of Óscar Romero (1917-1980), the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador soon to be beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. I am finding this material both inspiring and challenging, and am moved to ponder what this recognition means for the history of Christianity in the Americas -- indeed, for the Christian churches worldwide. In that vein, I've been ruminating on a short volume of excerpts from Romero's diary entries and homilies, which were broadcast from the archdiocesan radio station and served as a life-line of prophetic critique, journalism, and resistance in the months leading up to the civil war in El Salvador.

The Scandal of Redemption: When God Liberates the Poor, Saves Sinners, and Heals Nations, By Oscar Romero (edited by Carolyn Kurtz) (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2018).

This highly portable volume is more devotional and hagiographical than academic -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- and that bespeaks some limitations. But it does offer an accessible point of entry into the life-work of a great Christian prophet whose legacy is, finally, beginning to receive the ecclesial recognition it deserves. The excerpts are short meditations, whetting the appetite for more, but they do give a flavor of a preacher's passion for his suffering people, and his melding of traditional Catholic piety with the themes and commitments of contemporary theologies of liberation. The reflections are framed by a helpful introduction to Romero, as well as a moving tribute from Anglican activist-priest Michael Lapsley, who connects Romero's work in a very personal way with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

Romero's El Salvador was a highly polarized and class-stratified society dominated by a cadre of landowners and oligarchs who, bearing the odious mantle of European colonialism, had been bolstered and enabled by five decades of brutal military dictatorships. A forced and unnecessary scarcity in land access, I'm learning, was perhaps the key dynamic driving both the political repression from the right and also inciting a myriad of popular resistance movements and guerrilla insurgent groups coalescing in this period. Wealthy elites locked up most of the land for cash crops for export -- especially coffee -- while the average Salvadoran campesinos struggled to eke out even basic subsistence.

Notable, in this vein, is the way the preacher Romero connects the struggle over land in El Salvador -- ripped from the headlines -- with the biblical Exodus story. In a homily delivered in March, 1980, just days before the archbishop was assassinated while celebrating mass, he writes: "Let us not forget that the land is closely tied to the blessings and promises of God." (One might similarly consider the current struggles over land in Israel-Palestine today, but I'm not going there in this post.) "Not having land is a consequence of sin (emphasis mine)." Relevant to note here, Michael E. Lee (in his recent work Revolutionary Saint: The Theological Legacy of Oscar Romero, Orbis, 2018), shows how Romero's awakening in part consisted in his coming to see poverty and inequality as a social evil expressing human sinfulness, not as a part of God's providential ordering of society, as many earlier Christian thinkers have held. Romero continues:

When Adam left paradise, he was a man without land as the result of sin. Now Israel, pardoned by God, has returned to the land and can eat of the fruits and the grains of the earth. God gives blessings in the form of land. The land contains much of God, and therefore it groans when the unjust monopolize it and leave no space for others. Agrarian reform is a theological necessity (Scandal, p. 5, emphasis mine)

One begins to see why the wealthy aristocrats who had initially greased the wheels of Romero's promotion to archbishop began to turn on him.

There will be no true reconciliation between our people and God as long as there is no just distribution, as long as the goods of our Salvadoran land do not bring benefits and happiness to all Salvadorans (pp. 5-6)

I think even this uber-Protestant blog and its diverse, savvy, ecumenical readership might benefit from a little more stuff on Romero, so stay tuned, gentle readers.

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