Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage (Psalm 136) transports me to the El Salvador of 1977, when the country’s internal conflict intensified with the rise of two parallel movements. One the one side, there was a dramatic rise in the right-wing bands of paramilitary groups that came to be called “death squads.” These groups, such as the Fallange (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Anti-comunista de Guerras de Eliminacion, or Wars of Elimination Anti-Communist Liberation Armed Forces) routinely swept through communities murdering, kidnapping, raping, and torturing, all for the purpose of shutting down any voices of dissent or unrest or calls for reform. The year 1977 saw the passage of the Law for the Defense and Guarantee of Public Order, which eliminated legal restrictions on violence against civilians. On the other side, there was the dramatic rise in the left-wings bands of intentional Christian communities, known as Comunidades Eclesiasticas de Base, or CEBs, Christian Base Communities. These communities sought to undermine the government’s tight control and set the stage for a revolutionary transition of power and land reform.
The most famous figure to emerge from this struggle was the Archbishop Oscar Romero. Sent by the Vatican to calm and reign in the radical priests who were organizing the communities, he soon saw firsthand the ravages of the death squads, and became a strong voice for deliverance and liberation for the people. His assassination, which came three years after the passage of the Law for the Defense and Guarantee of Public Order, guaranteed that there would be public disorder in the cities and streets as his sacrifice inspired a new-found courage among the people.
The Psalmist, like Archbishop Romero, understood God to be a God of liberation and deliverance. And the Psalmist understood, like Romero, that deliverance and liberation don’t come easy. The poem begins with praise to God for the wonders of creation, and each line brings about the response, “for his love (or mercy) endures forever.” Then, when the theme moves from creation to liberation, we read some of the strangest and strongest series of oxymoronic juxtapositions in scripture. To him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt/his love and mercy endures forever. . . To him who swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea/his love and mercy endures forever. . . To him who struck down great kings/his love and mercy endures forever. . . and killed mighty kings/his love endures forever. Now there’s tough love for you, a new twist on the phrase “mercy killings.” The deceased kings Pharaoh and Sihon and Og might have labeled the actions of God “crimes of passion” had they lived to testify about it.
Like the Psalmist, Archbishop Romero wrote and spoke eloquently about the actions of God and his people’s hopes for deliverance. And like the Psalmist, he understood violence to be an essential part of the liberation. But unlike the Psalmist, he located the necessary violence inside the heart of the Christian, not in external acts of violence. You can read his words in a book of sermons he crafted in 1977, titled Love and Violence. Here are some of his thoughts:
We have never preached violence,
except the violence of love,
which left Christ nailed to a cross,
the violence that we must each do to ourselves
to overcome our selfishness
and such cruel inequalities among us.
The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword,
the violence of hatred.
It is the violence of love, of brotherhood,
the violence that wills to beat weapons
into sickles for work.
Holy Week is a call to follow Christ’s austerities,
the only legitimate violence, the violence that he does to himself
and that he invites us to do to ourselves: “Let those who would follow me deny themselves,”
be violent to themselves, repress in themselves the outbursts of pride,
kill in their hearts the outbursts of greed, of avarice, of conceit, of arrogance.
Let them kill it in their hearts. This is what must be killed,
this is the violence that must be done, so that out of it a new person may arise,
the only one who can build a new civilization:
a civilization of love.
It’s uncomfortable imagery, to be sure. But pride and greed and arrogance are not going to go down without a fight. Perhaps if we can imagine Love conquering those foes, we will be less likely to wage war and use real violence against our external foes. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.