Thy Kingdom Come: Reflections on Syria and El Salvador

Twenty-five years ago today, in the war-torn country of El Salvador, U.S.-trained gunmen marched onto a college campus, dragged priests from their beds and shot them in the quad. Earlier this year, a masked man came to the door of the Jesuit residence in the Syrian city of Homs, asking to see the priest. When Fr. Frans van der Lugt emerged and sat down with his guest, the visitor shot him in the face.

The Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter were murdered on November 17, 1989.
The Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter were murdered on November 17, 1989.

On Thursday, the Georgetown community came together to commemorate the first of these attacks. The Mass, and particularly the Gospel reading, reminded me of the victim of the second.

In Luke 17:20-25, Jesus tells his followers and critics that the “kingdom of God” would not initially be established in the way they’d expected or hoped.  The third-century Church Father, Origen of Alexandria, quotes Jesus and explains the passage in his important work, On Prayer in The Liturgy of the Hours.

The kingdom of God, in the words of our Lord and Savior, does not come for all to see; nor shall they say: Behold, here it is, or behold, there it is; but the kingdom of God is within us, for the word of God is very near, in our mouth and in our heart. Thus it is clear that he who prays for the coming of God’s kingdom prays rightly to have it within himself, that there it may grow and bear fruit and become perfect. For God reigns in each of his holy ones…”

Contrary to our expectations and to those of Jesus’ companions, God’s kingdom will not simply come in some future time, where an earthly, political authority that will enforce peace and justice. God’s kingdom is here now. It is constantly created and renewed through the self-sacrificing love of God’s people. The kingdom is found among those who share in the struggle of another; who speak truth to power; who work for justice and understanding; and who practice radical forgiveness and non-violence.

Ignacio Ellacuria speaking in San Salvador.
Ignacio Ellacuria speaking in San Salvador.

The kingdom, then, was no doubt present in the war-weary San Salvador and in the besieged Old City of Homs. There, Ignacio, Segundo, Juan, Ignacio, Joaquin, Armando and Frans lived out the self-giving love, agape, that Jesus’ life and death ask of us. Frans, originally from the Netherlands, lived alongside the Syrian population—Christian and Muslim—for fifty years. Ignacio Ellacuria, a Spaniard strongly defended the poor, angering both sides of the conflict when he said, “I am not a Communist, I am a Christian.” In both Syria and El Salvador, the Jesuits refused to join the fight, a stance that proved so threatening they had to be silenced.

Fr. Frans during an interview about the siege and starvation of Homs.
Fr. Frans during an interview about the siege and starvation of Homs. He was known for his slogan “let’s move forward.”

Like these men, who died in their pursuit of building God’s kingdom, we too will not see the kingdom fully formed. But we still work, in our own communities, to make the kingdom present in small ways. The words of a prayer dedicated to Oscar Romero, another priest who was killed during El Salvador’s war, not only reflects the outlook undoubtedly shared by these Jesuits, but also compels us to “move forward.”

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders;
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets
of a future not our own.

Fr. Frans was known for riding his bike around Homs, even after the war began.
Fr. Frans was known for riding his bike around Homs, even after the war began.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If you are unfamiliar with the lives and deaths of these brave men and their companions, check out the following links.

 

Standing with the Savior

Written March 24, 2014

Today is the anniversary of the death of Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who was shot and killed while saying Mass on March 24, 1980. How fitting that today’s Gospel reading, one of my favorites from Luke, is paired with the feast of Romero, who stood with the poor and marginalized even when it was unpopular and dangerous to do so. I’d like to offer some reflections on both the reading and Romero’s example, which call each of us to speak out for and walk alongside those whom our society would rather ignore, oppress, or deem the “enemy.”

The Rejection at Nazareth

Today’s Gospel reading only includes the last four verses of this narrative, but I’ve reproduced the entire passage below.

He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to readand was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.’

Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.

He said to them,“Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”And all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They also asked, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?”

He said to them, “Surely you will quote me this proverb, ‘Physician, cure yourself,’ and say, ‘Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.’”

Jesus said to the people in the synagogue at Nazareth: “Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place. Indeed, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half years and a severe famine spread over the entire land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon. Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But he passed through the midst of them and went away.

This passage is at times confusing, convoluted, and even contradictory. While I don’t attempt to flesh out the full meaning of this passage—I’ll leave that task to biblical scholars— I like to suggest a few lessons I think we can take from the text. What is Jesus saying to those around him? How does this connect to Oscar Romero? And most importantly, what does it say to us today?

Standing with the ‘other’

…He has anointed me/ to bring glad tidings to the poor./ He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives/ and recovery of sight to the blind,/ to let the oppressed go free…

This excerpt from Isaiah, which Jesus proclaims in the temple, speaks about his relationship with some of his world’s most marginalized groups: the sick and deformed who were shunned and blamed for their illness; children and women who lack value or a voice in society; the poor who were exploited by the rich; and the state that used fear (e.g. public crucifixions) to drive people into subjugation. These populations, which society ignores or intentionally excludes from the community, are the people with whom Jesus, and all of us, are called to live.

Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth.
Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth.

Jesus teaches us through his life and words, especially through Luke’s account, that the ‘other’ we are called to love is not just our brother, friend, or neighbor, but our enemy and, even more strikingly I think, those who we deem unworthy of any attention at all. He challenges his listeners in Nazareth to reconsider their closed categories and understand that no one is outside the realm of God’s love.

To further this message, Jesus brings up two stories familiar to his Jewish listeners: that of the widow in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian. In both of these stories, prophets of God (Elijah and Elisha, respectively) meet and save two individuals who are not a part of Israel, the Jewish people. They are both foreign, outside the bounds of the promised land, and are perceived by the ‘chosen people’ as rejected by God. And, yet, the stories demonstrate God in fact chose to stand with the outsiders, affirming their dignity in the face of a world that wished they didn’t exist.

The life of Oscar Romero shows us what this kind of solidarity looked like in twentieth century El Salvador (which means, “the Savior,” in Spanish). Shortly after Fr. Romero was elevated to the role of archbishop in San Salvador a brutal civil war broke out between the Salvadoran state (which received from the U.S. over 1 million dollars daily, in addition to training in inhumane military tactics) and Marxist rebels. Romero became a “microphone for Christ,” preaching on the archdiocesan radio station against the violence that engulfed the poor. He not only spoke against the Salvadoran state (an unprecedented move for a religious leader in the country) and begged American President Jimmy Carter to end military aid to El Salvador, but he lived simply and spent his time among the poor campesinos who suffered most. This essay by former Jesuit John Dear describes in detail many of Romero’s remarkable acts.

Isaiah, Jesus, and Romero’s call also extends to us. A true faith, they tell us, results in a life of solidarity among the widows, Namaans, and campesinos of our own time and place. Maybe they’re the teenagers incarcerated for minor drug possession in Washington, D.C. or the migrants from Sri Lanka and the Philippines that clean wealthy homes in Amman. For me, they’re the Muslims who find their beliefs misrepresented on the news, or discover their places of prayer targeted in hate. romero-41

Missing the message

“Some want to keep a gospel so disembodied
that it doesn’t get involved at all
in the world it must save.”  (Oscar Romero, 12/1/1978)

Oscar Romero didn’t always live the radical life of solidarity we know him for. When he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador, he was seen as a safe choice who would maintain the status quo of inequality and oppression that benefitted the state and Church hierarchies. Pre-war El Salvador was plagued by extreme socio-economic disparity, and the poor’s call for political and economic justice and were met by brutal state repression. Some priests and lay people promoted a new theology of liberation that empowered the marginalized of El Salvador, but Romero and other leaders sought dampen its effects, afraid of change. For many years before his appointment in San Salvador, Romero’s faith was watered down; his belief in Christ did not compel him to act, to reach out to those struggling in his country.

Like Romero, the residents of Nazareth in today’s passage fail to understand the full extent of the message of Jesus. The congregation in the synagogue praises Jesus’ after he finishes reading the powerful passage from Isaiah. They like the ‘idea’ of the faith on paper—they like the tradition, the history, and the preaching—but they miss the deeper message, and prefer to ignore that which challenges their comfortable notions of ‘us’ and ‘them.’

Sensing their misunderstanding, Jesus attempts to impress upon them the full meaning of the scripture by referencing the familiar accounts of the widow and Naaman. When the people finally recognize how much Jesus’ message uproots their insular and exclusive worldview, they are “filled with fury.”

When initially confronted with the radical message of Christ which was spreading among the poor in his country, Romero responded with fear and avoidance, as I expect most of us would (and do). He didn’t want to change, didn’t want to accept Christ’s challenge. It was only when a fellow priest, Jesuit Rutilio Grande, was murdered for his solidarity with the poor that Romero was compelled to action. Let us hope that it does not take the death of a friend to spur us to act.

Unpopularity

No prophet is accepted in his own native place.

Isaiah, Jesus and Romero’s stories also tell us that the work of solidarity is unpopular. Isaiah left Israel to minister elsewhere after his own people refused to listen to his critiques of their unjust society. Jesus returned to his boyhood home to hear insults from his friends. Romero found many fellow church leaders turn against or ignore his message, even the pope.

The rejection of prophets (and even God himself!) should inform us of the kind of rejection we no doubt will face if we properly live our lives alongside the ‘other.’ I’ve often received raised eyebrows, puzzled looks, and direct criticisms when I describe to friends and acquaintances my hope to improve the portrayal and perception of Muslims. It hurts when members of my church, where we hear Jesus’ call to dismantle our ‘us v. them’ dichotomy, still hold on to attitudes of separation and marginalization.

But in the moments when we experience skepticism or denunciation from those in our own communities, we should be comforted by the knowledge that we are on the right track. If we attempt to walk alongside those rejected by the community, we shouldn’t be surprised when that same community shuns us as well. 

A disappearing act

The end of the passage from Luke ends dramatically, with the congregation rising up against Jesus and dragging him to the edge of a hill, intending to do away with him and his call for change. But Jesus mysteriously “passes through the midst of them” and escapes.

We know from the rest of the Gospel that Jesus doesn’t ultimately escape from the hostile crowd. Three years later he dies at the hands of the mob, accepting the fate of all those oppressed or forgotten by the powers that be. From the beginning, Jesus knew that his way of solidarity not only risked a loss of friends, but also a threat to his life, and yet he chose to take that path. Jesus demonstrates that the only authentic path of solidarity is one of complete participation and sacrifice.

Romero understood the seriousness of this path when he saw countless priests, nuns, and lay people were murdered for their work to liberate the poor. He knew the risks and threats to his life and yet still he persisted. If anything, he spoke out more strongly.

An icon on Romero.
An icon on Romero.

Romero was shot and killed by a government-sponsored (and U.S. trained) death squad while saying Mass on March 24, 1980. He was one of the 75,000 plus people who were killed during the twelve-year civil war (this number is likely a low estimate). A million people were displaced and a countless number, especially children, were ‘disappeared.’ Forced disappearance was a terror tactic used by the government against civilians and likely resulted in the executions of those ‘disappeared.’ Statistics report that potentially 8,000 people were disappeared before and during the civil war, and again the number is likely a conservative estimate.

Though on the surface it seems that Jesus’ and Romero’s sacrifices accomplished little—thought it appeared that the mob had won— their stories tell us that death and failure are only a mask for the true transformation of society. Knowing his death was imminent, Romero said, “I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.”

That’s the mystery of Easter and of Christian faith: that what seems to be defeat is in reality a mechanism for victory and new life. By his death, Romero became a symbol and source of strength for Salvadorans and people globally, compelling then to work for change in ways he never could have on his own.

A cross from Central America.
A cross from Central America.

Jesus and Romero’s deaths remind us that our call to solidarity is ‘all or nothing,’ that we can’t just disappear and bolt when things get dangerous. They remind us not to become discouraged when our work seems insignificant or unsuccessful. And, most importantly, they remind us that though they, our leaders and guides, have disappeared, their spirit can rise again in us, the people of the Savior.

“Christ is now in history.
Christ is in the womb of the people.
Christ is now bringing about
the new heavens and the new earth.”
   (Oscar Romero, 12/1/1978)

Since the 25th is the feast of the Annunciation, another event which took place in Nazareth, I wanted to share this photo from the Church of the Annunciation, which I visited with my parents and Chris two weeks ago.

Some of the resources I used for this piece can be found here:

United Nations Biography of Romero
A reflection from U.S. Catholic
An editorial from Sojourners
Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on liberation theology

Poem: “Bethel”

About six months ago, I composed the following poem. It’s called Bethel, which means “house of God” in Hebrew. Initially inspired by peaceful summer sunsets and a passage of Genesis (which can be found below), I found myself weaving together strands of wisdom I’ve gathered from diverse religious sources over the years.

The words of this poem are not original. Every line contains a direct reference to a different scripture passage or myth that has informed my own personal sprituality. The sources include the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), Jewish midrash (commentary), the poetry of Hafiz and Rumi, the mystical writings of Julian of Norwich and Gregory of Nyssa, and Buddhist myth.

I’ve linked each line to the source from which it comes, so you can look up the ideas inspired this piece. I hope this poem can be a source for inter religious education, to help acquaint religious and non-religious people alike with the beautiful truths contained in religious stories.

But more importantly, I hope this poem can express a bit of my own varied experience of God. The words of these great religions help me to describe a range of encounters and emotions: first, wonder and awe; then, confusion and mystery; abandonment and anxiety; pain and relief; excitement and giddiness; peace and communion. I’m  learning that of these states of being–all of these stages of joy, sorrow, boredom, and everything in between–are locations of encounter with God.

In short, the message of this poem is an elaboration of Jacob’s exclamation in Genesis 28:16: “Truly, the Lord is in this spot, although I did not know it.” Though I don’t often realize it, God is always with me.

Bethel
by Jordan Denari

This spot

where I place a stone
where the sparrow falls
and hovers like love over the waters
where He breaks a branch,
a rung on the ladder,
     and His foot touches earth near me.

where there’s a ringing in my ears,
     a tight, breathless squeezing
where fire passes between
     two wrestling beings
where I’m shoved into a cliff face
     and down into a ditch.

where a ram is found in the thicket
where mothers clutch branches of date
     and sal trees
where a father runs to me, though I was a long way off.

where the Lover leaps across the hills
     and knocks at my door
     so sweetly asking for your address.

where the lilies no longer toil and spin
where light is poured back in
where the stone is rolled away
    and the Gardener calls my name. 

Sunset in North East Washington, D.C. at the Franciscan Monastery.
Sunset in North East Washington, D.C. at the Franciscan Monastery.