In every day and age, in good times and bad, in peace and in war – truth-telling can be a dangerous business. Yet we know that as Christians – let alone teachers, religious leaders, or activists – this is part of our call, and that for the joy and wonder this call takes, sometimes it exacts a high price. This week’s author, my colleague the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Stewart, reflects on this interaction between call and sacrifice. This is a particularly poignant note, too, coming off of the 29th anniversary of the martyrs of the University of Central America in El Salvador. Read, comment, and share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
In the fall of 2002, a small group of us from Holden Village traveled to Columbus, Georgia, to participate in an action at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, a training facility for mainly Latin American military officers, many of whom returned to their home countries as graduates to commit and oversee torture, executions, and war crimes.
On the night before the action, in a budget hotel, we gathered in a stuffy little conference room with a low ceiling to hear some reflections from Father Roy Bourgeois, Daniel Berrigan, and a number of Jesuits from around the world, especially from El Salvador. I remember vividly that some of the Jesuits showed necklaces they wore that had small vials of the bloody earth they had gathered from where their brothers, the Jesuit martyrs of San Salvador, had been found after they were massacred at the University of Central America on November 16th, 1989, twenty-nine years ago.
These martyred priests had had all the connections they needed to flee El Salvador as the violence increased. But they stayed. One of them, Segundo Montes, had made it clear, “This is my country and these people are my people… The people need to have the church stay with them in these terrible times…. God’s grace does not leave, so neither can we” (quoted in Ellsberg, All Saints, 500).
A few years earlier, before he himself had been martyred, their bishop, Oscar Romero, had said in shocking language: “I am glad that they have murdered priests in this country, because it would be very sad if in a country where they are murdering the people so horrifically, there were no priests among the victims” (Ellsberg, 500).
But the priests martyred 29 years ago were primarily scholars of religion: academic theologians and administrators alongside two women who had taken refuge from the violence at the university. Ignacio Ellacuría, the rector of the university, had put at the center of his scholarship what he called the “the crucified peoples” of history. Jon Sobrino wrote about these Jesuit martyrs: “let us not forget that what was most feared in [these academics] was their serious and reasoned word, their theological word” (Companions of Jesus, 51).
Sobrino continues, writing about the martyrs but with wider contemporary resonance: “Telling the truth does not just mean dissipating ignorance but fighting lies. This is essential work for a university and central to our faith…. As Paul says, the world imprisons the truth with injustice. These Jesuits wanted to free the truth from the slavery imposed on it by the oppressors, cast light on lies, bring justice in the midst of oppression, hope in the midst of discouragement, love in the midst of indifference repression and hatred. That is why they were killed.” (Sobrino, 26-27)
Sobrino’s words are resonant with the Psalm text appointed in Evangelical Lutheran Worship for the commemoration of martyrs. Psalm 5 sings about the life-and-death stakes of truth telling. The psalmist speaks first here about the violent oppressors — and we can think about the ways in recent years, from Mother Emanuel Church to Tree of Life Synagogue, that lies have led to violence. First, a word about the oppressors:
There is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction;
their throats are open graves; they deceive with their tongues.
But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you.
For you bless the just, O Lord; you cover them with favor as with a shield.
(Psalm 5.9, 11-12)
Lies beget violence. Truth begets sanctuary, and singing for joy.
This year, on the anniversary of their martyrdom, the annual memorial action is not being held at Fort Benning, but is a procession to the U.S. Southern Border, as a kind of prayer for protection and reverence for all who are seeking shelter in this country, as in the psalm: spread your protection over them, cover them with favor as with a shield, let them sing for joy. Some of those same vials from 29 years ago will lead the procession toward the border. All these years later, the commitment of the Jesuits still rings true: God’s grace does not leave, so neither can we.
Perhaps the ongoing witness of these fellow academics can be a bracing reminder of the high stakes of our work as theologians, the power of the word to cast out lies, to unsettle the powerful, to uphold the vulnerable, and to put into words a way of solidarity known most deeply as it is broken and poured out for others. That’s the vial we carry in procession.
It’s a word that creates space — sanctuary — for the world to sing for joy.
So perhaps our prayer today is simple: that our teaching — what Sobrino called our “serious and reasoned word, [our] theological word” — might accomplish what the Psalmist prays: “let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you. For you bless the just, O Lord; you cover them with favor as with a shield.” For the sanctuaries our students will serve, for our own bodies in need of shelter and care, for those seeking refuge everywhere, and among us:
Benjamin Stewart, PhD, is the Gordon A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship and Director of Advanced Studies at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where he has taught since 2009.
A frequent conference speaker and a Lutheran pastor, Ben previously served as pastor to a small, Appalachian community in Ohio, and as village pastor to Holden Village retreat center in the Glacier Peak Wilderness of Washington. In addition to articles in a number of journals including Worship, Liturgy, and The Christian Century, Ben is author of A Watered Garden: Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology (2011). He is a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy and serves as convener of its Ecology and Liturgy Seminar. He is currently writing an ecotheology of natural burial practices. Ben and his wife Beth live in Western Springs, near Bemis Woods and the Salt Creek, and are parents of two sons, Justin, in high school, and Forrest, in college. Twitter: @bstewLSTC