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

My talk at the Ignatian Family Teach-In

Last weekend, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to deliver the following speech at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice to an audience of over 1,000.

Using my own experiences with Muslim-Christian dialogue and the documents of the Second Vatican Council, I argued that we as Catholics are called to engage in interreligious dialogue.

Click here, or on the image below to watch “Living Nostra Aetate: Dialoging with Muslims,” or read the full text of the speech below the photo.

Click here to watch “Living Nostra Aetate: Dialoging with Muslims” November 16, 2012, IFTJ

Full text of the speech:

Good evening.

[My name is Jordan Denari, I’m a senior at Georgetown University here in Washington, D.C. (applause) and a proud alumnus of Brebeuf Jesuit in Indianapolis (applause).  Forgive me, I’m getting over a cough and lost my voice earlier this week, so bear with me.]

I’d like to begin first by saying “Assalaamu ‘alaykum,” which, in Arabic, means “peace be with you.”  It seems like an appropriate way to begin today, given that it’s a phrase that Muslims use to greet one another, and it’s something that Jesus encouraged his followers to say to each other as well.

During my freshman year at Georgetown University, I was asked the following question multiple times: “Are you converting to Islam?”

I wouldn’t be surprised if people still asked that question now, three years later — given that I’ve been a board member of Georgetown’s Muslim Students Association, lived in the Muslim living-learning community, worked at an Islamic advocacy organization, and can often be spotted participating in Muslim Friday prayers with my hair wrapped up in a scarf.

In reality, however, I’m far from converting, and I feel more rooted in my own tradition, Catholicism, than ever before.

And that’s not spite of my engagement with the Muslim community, but because of it. Rather than pulling me away from my Catholic faith, interreligious dialogue with Muslims has deepened my faith, enriched it. Dialogue — which for me is about lived engagement with those different from myself — helped me fall back in love with the Catholic tradition in which I grew up.

At the beginning of college, while struggling with my Catholic identity and wondering if another religion like Islam might provide me with the connection to God that I was missing, I formed a close friendship with a Muslim girl in my dorm, Wardah. She taught me more about Islam than books ever could, because she simply lived her religion. When we roomed together as sophomores, she woke up early in the morning to pray and often stopped in the middle of homework assignments to pull out her prayer rug. Lacking commitment in my relationship with God, I wanted that kind of consistency in my own prayer life.

Wardah brought me to Muslim students’ events, like an iftar, the fast-breaking meal during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. I was struck by the sense of community and solidarity I saw among my new Muslim friends, and realized how much I craved that, too.

Finding these emphases on prayer and community in Islam reminded me that they also existed in my own Church, and I wanted to find them again. I signed up for a Catholic retreat with the intent of improving my daily prayer habits, and I joined a small Catholic bible study that provided me with a community with whom I could reflect on scripture. My relationship with God began improving, and my appreciation for my Catholic tradition increased.

My re-embracing of Catholicism would not have been possible without my exposure to Islam and my immersion into the Muslim community. But this process occurred differently than many might expect. People may assume that, after being exposed to Islam’s beliefs and practices and not liking them, I ran for the hills—the familiarity of Catholicism.

Instead, Islam, a faith not my own, became the medium through which I came to love the faith of my childhood. Islam provided me with a critical reference point from which I could see my own tradition more clearly. Before, I had been too close to really notice the beauty of Catholicism.

I often say that I have Islam to thank for helping me reclaim my faith —for making me a better Catholic. I think immersion into any other religious tradition would have served me in the same way.

As I began to reflect upon my own faith journey and the way in which Islam brought me back to Catholicism, I wondered what the Church would say about my engagement with the Muslim community and the interreligious dialogue that was so crucial to my experience.

A class on the post-Vatican II Church began to answer my questions, and I was thrilled to discover that the Church’s understanding of the importance of dialogue mirrored my own.

For the Church, interreligious dialogue is essential, and its purpose is vast: fostering understanding and learning between different religious groups; establishing social peace and cooperation; and strengthening the spirituality of all those involved.

The Church’s dedication to dialogue officially began with Nostra Aetate, a revolutionary Vatican II document that describes the Church’s new relationship to non-Christian religions.  In only five short paragraphs, it reshaped the way the Church approaches people of other faiths.

It reads: the Church “urges its sons and daughters to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.  Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, together with their social life and culture.”

The Church asserts that I can still remain true to my Catholic identity—that I am actually living out my Catholicism—while supporting and encouraging my Muslim friends’ way of life.

Pope John Paul II, who took strides to implement the ideals called for in Nostra Aetate, wrote in his encyclical Redemptor Hominis that participation in dialogue “does not at all mean losing certitude about one’s own faith or weakening the principles of morality…” Rather, he said, “the strong beliefs and the moral values of the followers of other religions can and should challenge Christians to respond more fully and generously to the demands of their own Christian faith.”

This has been my experience precisely. And that’s why I continue to stay involved in the Muslim community. Not only are Muslims my good friends, but their devotion to their religion constantly motivates me to re-examine the way I live out my Catholicism.

And, it’s why I’ve led efforts at Georgetown to provide religiously-diverse students with opportunities to dialogue with one another. Thanks to our small-group dialogue program, students find that their stereotypes of others are shattered, and in seeing how other believers practice their faith, they reflect on their own tradition in a new light.

The most powerful—and likely surprising—line in Nostra Aetate is one that again speaks directly to my own experiences.

It reads: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. …[Their teachings] often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women.”

I feel “rays of truth”—or God’s presence—when I participate in Muslim prayer and squish shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the congregation.  I see the rays of truth when I watch the way my Muslim friends interact with one another in love.

And I hear the rays of truth in the azan, the Islamic call to prayer.  When I studied abroad in Amman, Jordan, I was constantly drawn into a state of prayer upon hearing the azan five times a day.  It was God calling me to dhikr, remembrance of God and the way he works in my life.

Nostra Aetate helped me realize that living a life of dialogue and interreligious engagement with Muslims was an inherently Catholic vocation, and it continues to challenge me today to live out that call in deeper ways:

The Church encourages all to “work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve, as well as to promote, together, social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom, for the benefit of all mankind.”

It’s particularly important for me to stand in solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters today, in light of the prejudices that Muslims face in the post-9/11 world.

Last month, anti-Muslim hate propaganda lined the walls of the D.C. metro, and a friend’s mosque was targeted in arson. And those are only two of myriad hate-filled and ignorance-driven acts that Muslims have had to cope with over the last few years.  When I worked at an Islamic advocacy organization, I’d read daily local news reports about hate crimes against Muslims, but never were they reported about on a national scale, despite the fact that between 2009 and 2010, hate crimes against Muslims in America rose by 50%.  As a Catholic, I can’t forget that our minority religious community too faced prejudice and scapegoating during an earlier time in American history.  Like Muslims, we Catholics were marginalized because we were “foreign” and “threatening to American law and way of life.”

Today, the same accusations—and worse—are leveled against Muslims. Because many Americans don’t know Muslims—62% claim to have never met a Muslim—the media’s negative portrayal allows the American public—and many Christians—to push Muslims to the margins.

Unfortunately, I saw this marginalization occurring in my own Catholic community back home in Indianapolis.  One afternoon during my junior year of high school, I opened my e-mail inbox to find a hateful, Islamophobic chain message, forwarded from a family friend.  The email contained inflammatory epithets about Muslims, who, according to the email, expressed tacit approval for terrorism and violence committed by a few radicals.  I was angry and sad that a family friend, someone from my own Catholic community, could espouse and promote this hateful sentiment—that she would lump terrorists together with people like my friend, Nadir, a Muslim who went to my high school, Brebeuf Jesuit, and now goes to Georgetown with me. He is an exceptional individual who exudes kindness and has committed his life to helping others.  I wondered how my family friend could put him in the same category as those who carried out the 9/11 attacks.

It was immediately apparent to me that my family friend was not a hateful woman; it was her ignorance that resulted in her prejudicial comments. Those in my Catholic community who had circulated this email did so because of their lack of understanding of Muslims.

I hope my own story, and the call of Nostra Aetate, can help remind Christians how much we need our Muslim neighbors—how much we can learn about God and each other by engaging with them.  We must be like the Samaritan, pulling up the stranger.  We must bring Muslims out of the margins, making clear that they too are our neighbors.

Every night, I go to Mass in the chapel of the North American Jesuit Martyrs at Georgetown.  It’s a habit that I never would have anticipated myself undertaking four years ago, when I came to college shaky about my Catholic identity.  During the Eucharist, I often think about the fact that I wouldn’t be at nightly Mass were it not for the group of believers on the other side of the chapel wall—the Georgetown Muslim community.  While the Catholics participate in their 10pm Mass, the Muslim students complete their nightly 10pm isha prayer in the musallah, or prayer room, next door.  When I come to Mass discouraged about the state of Muslim-Christian relations—when it seems that violence and bigotry will win out—I’m often strengthened by the quiet, Arabic words that echo from the musallah into the chapel every night: Allahu akbar—God is greater.

(End of speech)