Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Óscar Romero on sin and the liberation struggle

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Oscar RomeroTomorrow, 24 March, will be the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador. San Romero is remembered for his radical faith that compelled him to take a stand against the US-backed right-wing military government of El Salvador. Although often associated with liberation theology, the Marxist theological movement that began in Latin America, Romero rose through the ranks of the church as a staunch conservative, demanding obedience to the church hierarchy and the government, and being openly critical of Marxist priests and the guerilla fighters.

However, it was the assassination in 1977 of Romero’s friend, the outspoken Jesuit liberation theologian Rutilio Grande García, who set up base church communities (Christian worker’s communes) in the poorest districts of the country, that was something of an epiphany to him, and foreshadowing of his own death. Romero said, “If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path”. Óscar Romero began to speak out against the assassinations and in defence of the poor. He remained critical of the Marxist guerillas, but grew in sympathy for liberation theology.

Today, Savi Hensman has written an article for Ekklesia on Romero. She includes this quote from a sermon preached in the month of his death

“There can be no true liberation
until people are freed from sin.
All the liberationist groups that spring up in our land
should bear this in mind.
The first liberation to be proposed by a political group
that truly wants the people’s liberation
must be to free oneself from sin.

“While one is a slave of sin —
of selfishness, violence, cruelty, and hatred —
one is not fitted for the people’s liberation.”

2 March 1980

It is a profound conjunction of politics/social justice and faith: a struggle for social and political liberation is worthless without a struggle against sin, and vice versa. One could go as far as to say that a full understanding of either requires the other. In this way, he is critical of both atheistic Marxism, in that it denies one’s fallible human nature, and much Christian morality and spirituality, in that they deny the human nature of others. This teaching goes deep to the heart of Christian socialism.

To demonstrate the universality of this message, I quote a related concept of Aung San Suu Kyi

“The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation’s development.

“A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions has little chance of genuine success.

“Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration. It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance and fear.”

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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