Today Americans celebrate Memorial Day.
One week ago, May 23rd, marked the one year anniversary of the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, assassinated in March 1980.
In the age of Trump, one hardly needs to make the argument that fear of death is a central tool of governments (a.k.a., the nation-state). Citizens are called to submit to the nation-state because it alone has the power to protect them from death. The better the state is at protecting its citizens from death – and things that lead to death, such as illness, malnutrition, and crime – the greater the nation. This is one interpretation of “Make America Great Again.”
Of course, this claim to greatness and its protection from death only applies to certain citizens. If some excluded others have to die for the sake of our living – well, so be it.
Romero understood that the few were willing to sacrifice the lives of the many for the sake of their own living. This might take the form of violent repression – as it did in El Salvador – but it also might take the form of more subtle and slow forms of death, what Romero (and the Latin American bishops before him, at Medellín) called institutionalized violence.
But when confronted with the deaths of these excluded others, be they slow or violent, we – the “we” who are living off of their deaths – will vehemently deny such accusations. Most of the time, we simply ignore these deaths. What we can’t see, we don’t have to face. So we keep ourselves uninformed. Blissfully unaware.
In the days of Romero, our lack of awareness – our collective forgetting – took the form of four billion dollars of aid to a military that was regularly massacring its citizens. Human rights abuses of which the U.S. government was aware but chose not to remember – because groups supporting the poor must be communist and communism was the great threat.
These days the great threat is terrorism. And so we are happy for our military to bomb and our government to prop up leaders, and we don’t worry too much about what this means for the day-to-day lives of the citizens of those countries. Syria. Iraq. Afghanistan. Just as we did not worry much about El Salvador. Guatemala. Chile.
And our own soldiers? A couple of times a year we pat ourselves on the back for being a patriotic country that honors its soldiers, and we jump down the throats of those who would dare question the actions of our military. We especially like to remember WWII. Ah, the glory days.
But who makes up our military these days? Are the wealthy heads of corporations and our political leaders sending their children to war? Not usually. Rather, the sons and daughters of the poor and working class are the most heavily represented. We send the children of our struggling families to put themselves in harm’s way. Meanwhile, those who make the policy decisions and those who profit off of war – the elite – are insulated from its effects. Blissfully unaware. PTSD? Suicides? Forgotten.
But this is not the story we tell ourselves.
It is the day before Memorial Day, Sunday, the day of the Lord. The pastor of the “community” church speaks his opening words before communion, reminding his congregation of the story of Saving Private Ryan. In the opening scene of the movie, the now elderly Ryan remembers at the graves of the soldiers who saved him. Soldiers were sent to save the life of Private Ryan. They lost their lives to save his. “That is what this remembering at communion is about!” the preacher proclaims, tears in his eyes and voice faltering.
At another communion table, in a little chapel in San Salvador, another pastor prepared to lift the cup and serve his people. As he did so, a single gunshot pierced his heart. Why was he killed? For remembering. In the homily each week, broadcast to the whole country, Monseñor Romero would list the names of those who had been killed. Those who the government wanted to be forgotten. Every time a priest or lay leader was assassinated, the church remembered. Every Lent and Easter, the church remembered.
This remembering of the church was not simply a recounting of the past, however. In the remembering of the dead, they were made present. For the dead were witnesses: witnesses to the violent repression, yes. But much more, witnesses to the hope of the resurrection.
It is absurdly obvious, but sometimes the obvious must be spoken: Jesus did not die a military hero. He did not die fighting his enemies. He loved his enemies to the point of letting them kill him. Then, through the resurrection, he revealed the (so-called) power and security of the state for what it is: so much nothingness. Trumped up fear and panic (pun intended).
He has called on the church to imitate him, siding with those who suffer death at the hands of the state – fast or slow, violent or subtle. He has called on the church to be willing to die for the sake of unmasking the powers, powers who would claim to protect us…but who require our (children’s) blood to do so.
The question for the church in the U.S.: How do we understand Christian martyrdom in a nation that only recognizes one kind of sacrifice? In other words, how will we faithfully remember?