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

Why I’m scared

In my last post, I said I’m not sure that America is beyond the kind of bigotry and intolerance that led to the internment of Japanese Americans several decades ago.  And I think the following video proves my point.

Last month, in Orange County, California, Muslim families were attending a dinner hosted by Islamic Circle of North America Relief USA in order to raise money to

Anti-Muslim protest outside Islamic organization fundraiser.

establish women’s shelters and fight hunger and homelessness in the area.  As they walked into the event, they were greeted by protestors who shouted bigoted and ignorant slurs, like “Go back home!” and “You beat up your wife, too?”  Earlier in the day, in the park across the way, a protest was held in which local and federal government officials made statements like “I know quite a few Marines who would be very happy to help these terrorists to an early meeting in paradise.”

(The video was compiled by the Council on American Islamic Relations, and features video from local news stations and Muslims attending the event.)

This video is beyond saddening, but it is only one example among many, I’m afraid.  This next video, which was filmed outside the White House, portrays protestors shouting at a Muslim man who prayed there.  The full details can be found in this Washington Post article.

I truly hope we can say “never again” to institutionalized hate in America.  But we can’t say it naively and passively, assuming that we’re too “advanced” or too “modern” or too “Westernized” to be intolerant.  As I wrote in a commentary while I was a reporter at Y-Press, we said “never again” to genocide while inaugurating the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. in 1993; but a year later, genocide occurred in Rwanda while the Western world looked on.

We must ensure by our words and our actions that we are actively creating an environment that is not conducive to hate.  Apathy and passivity is what allowed the institutionalization of hate in Nazi Germany and 1994 Rwanda.

Passivity allows for the scenes in this video to happen.  A few years ago, ABC’s “What Would You Do?” did this special on discrimination of Muslims in America.  When bystanders saw Muslims being discriminated against, many of them did nothing to stop it.

Sadly, hate against Muslims has become institutionalized in this country, and if passivity like the kind in the ABC special continues, institutionalized hate will only increase.  This past week, we witnessed the Congressional hearing that investigated “radicalization” in the Muslim American community, and in several states efforts are being made to ban sharia law.  Sharia law is greatly misunderstood in the West, and sadly has come to be synonymous with oppression and terror.  (I hope to do a post on sharia sometime in the near future.)

Apart from political institutionalization, hate has become most entrenched in the mainstream media.  It is possible for TV show hosts to make blatant lies about Islam on their shows, and yet no one holds them accountable for it.  Viewers often assume that because those on TV claim to be reporters or journalists or objective commentators, they are upholding journalistic ethics—being truthful, presenting all the information, and just plain being respectful.  This assumption is horribly naive.  Cable “news” programs especially, whether or not they are “liberal” or “conservative,” are more concerned with appealing to an already established base and shaping the political discourse in a way that profits to them.  We must question the news we receive and consciously seek to verify what we hear and see on TV.

In some of my blog posts I hope I’ve been able to provide some facts that will reveal how misguided the claims of cable hosts and guests can be.  Despite the fact that cable networks have 24 hours of time in which to present coverage, their treatment of “news” lacks the nuance and depth necessary to flesh out many of the complex issues related to Islam and the Muslim community.

What we need instead of talk-show hosts that demonize and protests that spew hate are things like this: the “Today, I am a Muslim Too” rally that took place in New York City last weekend.  This was a positive action taken with the intent of creating solidarity with and better understanding of Muslim Americans.

Christian pastor at the rally.

If we want to really say “never again,” and truly make institutionalized hate a part of our country’s past, then we must act—whether that means expanding our news sources, challenging a friend’s stereotypical comment, or visiting our local mosques (without signs).

We cannot sit idly by.

We know all too well the damage that passivity can do.

Japanese internment camp in Colorado

I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this topic. Do you think America has become more Islamophobic?  If so, what evidence have you seen in your daily life, and what can we do to reverse this trend?  If not, why?  Do you think my criticism of the media is fair?

———-

In a few weeks, CNN will be airing a special called “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door.”  Below is the link to the promo video.  I will be interested to see how this issue of Islamophobia is covered.  As I alluded earlier, I am not always pleased by CNN’s coverage of Islam, so I am curious to watch this piece.

http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/us/2011/03/09/unwelcome.the.muslims.next.door.cnn.html

The souls of our shoes: A reflection on Egypt

On Thursday night, as Mubarak defiantly refused to step down from the presidency, the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square held their shoes high above their heads, making

Egyptians holding up their shoes in Tahrir Square on Thursday night.

visible their soles and directing them symbolically toward Mubarak.  In the Arab world, this action—showing someone the sole of your shoe— is a sign of upmost disrespect.  Raising these shoes seemed to be a final act of frustration in a thirty-year, and a three-week, struggle against the Mubarak regime.  And as we saw yesterday, Mubarak has left (Alhamdulilah!/Thank God!).

What is amazing about this revolution is that it wasn’t only the Egyptians holding up their shoes—the world was doing it with them. By Tweeting messages of solidarity, watching live Al-Jazeera coverage in Arabic class, and posting relevant articles on our Facebook pages, we were virtually shaking our shoes and shouting “Huria” (Freedom) along with the democracy protestors across Egypt.  If the Iranian protests of 2009 showed us the potential of social media in fighting oppression, Egypt showed us social media’s power in action.

Youtube clip: American girls protesting in solidarity

My favorite example of Internet solidarity was a YouTube video posted by an American family.  After watching the protests on TV, the man’s four daughters didn’t want to go sleep; they were too excited and wanted to participate in whatever way they could.  So these four little blonde girls marched around their living room with signs of support and shouting Arabic phrases, and their dad taped it. I almost cried while watching it.  I commend these parents so much for educating their young children about current events and the importance of standing in solidarity with others.  As a parent, I hope I can encourage this kind of curiosity and compassion in my kids.

While the Egyptian people did receive support from many Americans and others around the world, their movement lacked support from most democratic governments, most notably the US, who claims to be a beacon of democracy.  Our government has advocated democracy in word and in deed in other countries, yet regarding Egypt, the US government’s support of the democracy movement was weak.  The Obama Administration was unwilling to criticize Mubarak’s regime (an old ally), and the administration’s call for non-violence rightly fell on deaf ears when discarded tear gas canisters were found bearing the words “Made in the USA.”

Despite the fact that these demonstrations lacked institutional support and rejected violence except in cases of self-defense, the Egyptian people were able to successfully oust their president, the symbol of their oppressive regime.  This fact is utterly mind-blowing and gives me and so many others a renewed belief in the power of grassroots organizing and non-violent responses to oppression.

This event should also prove something to America and the West: that democracy can grow organically from within Arab countries; rather than being imposed on the West’s terms, internal efforts for democracy should be supported.  The US must realize and be willing to accept that the new Egyptian government is likely to be anti-American in some form.  If I were one of the Egyptians, who have experienced how American tear gas and tax dollars have been used to bolster the Mubarak regime for 30 years, I too would want my new government to have little to do with the US.

Many others and I have also been struck by the lack of formal ideology that has fueled this democracy movement.  The Muslim Brotherhood did not participate in the protests initially, and though they joined later on, they were not motivating the demonstrations.  The protesters were driven to stand in Tahrir for three weeks straight—some of them even living there—because of purely practical political, economic, and civil grievances.  Even if the democracy movement becomes more ideologically driven and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the West doesn’t need to worry as much as I expect it will.  The Brotherhood is portrayed in Western media as being more radical than they are, according to a Georgetown professor who talked a few weeks back on the Daily Show.

For me, the most powerful images of the past three weeks were these:

Qur'an and Cross held high in Tahrir Square
Christian+Muslim=Egypt
Christian and Muslim women in Tahrir. (Photo credit: Joel Carillet)

On Friday, February 4th, while Muslims prayed in Tahrir Square, the Christians made a human barrier around the worshipers, who then reciprocated for the Christians as they prayed on Sunday the 6th (which was dubbed “Day of the Martyrs”).  Throughout the demonstrations, Muslims and Christians have been standing aside one another, defending one another, in order to help achieve their common goal of a free and unified country.

We in America and the West must look to and learn from this example of solidarity. Despite the tense and dangerous situation in which they find themselves, the Egyptian people, both Christians and Muslims, are able to put aside their differences and become unified.  If they, while defending their lives in a violent and hostile environment, can come together in decency, respect, and friendship, why can’t we?

In this era of mistrust and hostility between Muslims and Christians in the West, I urge all of us to lower our shoes, which we’ve held up for so long in disrespect.  Instead, we must put our shoes back on and stand side by side, so our true souls can be seen.

 

Note: I’ve also wanted to write about the journalists who have bravely covered the protests, but that will probably come at another time.  In the meantime, I thank them for the sacrifices they made and the risks they took.  Many have been violently targeted because of their noble and important work.

Also, the events in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world may have massive implications for many college students’ study abroad plans–including my own.  Hopefully I’ll post on that topic as well.