Forty years – nearly to the day – after Óscar Romero was murdered for advocating for the lives of the poor and for denouncing the regime of death ruling his country, a prominent Catholic journal in the U.S. has published an article accusing those who want to protect the weak from death of paying deference to “the false god of ‘saving lives.'” Americans, R. R. Reno claims, are letting a fear of death control them. He identifies “a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost.”
False gods, the dominion of death, and demons. Heady language with strong warnings to Christians to be on their guard. Reno is right that Christians are called to discern where death is having its way, where the anti-God forces are at work, and where humans are exchanging the true God for worthless idols. But he is reading the situation upside-down.
Where is death at work in this cultural moment? Romero asked the same question, as he believed a church that preaches resurrection must denounce death-dealing structures in society, and a church that preaches conversion must denounce sin in all its subtleties. In Romero’s moment, many Christians saw the violence of the leftist groups of El Salvador as the only violence worth denouncing, as the primary location of the reign of sin and death. They considered the violence of the military and police and their allies as legitimate violence, intended to maintain “law and order.” Violence meant to keep society intact, to keep the economy humming along and social and political life under control.
Romero denounced both of these types of violence, while also pointing to a different violence, one hidden from our sight by its very everyday-ness. It is the violence of a status quo willing to sacrifice the poor for the sake of a prosperous economy. It is the violence of laws that burden the vulnerable while lightening the load of the elite. For Romero, this kind of “ordinary violence” (in the words of Romero scholar Matthew Whelan) is in some ways even more insidious just because of its hiddenness. He insisted that the “long, drawn out” deaths of Salvadorans were no less the fruit of sin then the “swift death” brought by repression.
Reno, on the other hand, asserts that “the pro-life cause concerns the battle against killing, not an ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.” The dolorous reality of death. And if that “dolorous reality” takes on flesh in the bodies of the weak, the elderly, the poor? Do we accept that as simply the way of human finitude? Or do we discern where the dominion of death might be at work, where sin might be having its way?
The crux of the problem, of course, is that the poor and weak are more vulnerable to die from a shut-down economy, just as they are more vulnerable to die from the virus itself. Many have been pointing out the ways that the economy and human lives are intertwined, that the economy itself is meant to be directed at human flourishing. What we must acknowledge is that this moment is revealing the ordinary violence that was already present in our systems. “Revealing” – because that is what apocalyptic moments do, they reveal. The ordinary violence instantiated in our systems cannot be an excuse for less drastic action taken to protect the vulnerable from the virus. Rather, we ought to accept it as an opportunity to rethink and refashion those systems. We must hold our leaders to account, insist that they provide for those stripped of jobs, income, and childcare in the months ahead. We have a way forward to help shelter people from the worst consequences of the economic downturn, if we so choose. At the moment, at least, we do not have what we need to shelter people from the worst of the virus – protective gear, hospital beds, ventilators, treatments for the virus.
So we must ask the questions. We must ask, are we succumbing to the fear of death? To the centering of survival? Are we serving a false god? But we must do so with a clear view as to where violence and death are truly at work, particularly in veiled form.
On the cross, Christ unveiled the false gods of his own moment. Christians, in their willingness to suffer and die, alongside and for the sake of others, can reveal the idols calling for blood and sacrifice in their own historical moment, just as Romero did. What Christians can not do, what Christians must never do, is turn a blind eye when others are being sacrificed to those idols. And such calls for sacrifice are already taking place in the U.S.:
The idols of nationalism and wealth have always wielded great power in the U.S. It was inevitable that they would call for sacrifice in this moment of crisis. Will Christians turn a deaf ear to or even participate in such calls for blood offerings?
“There are many things more precious than life,” Reno states. Indeed. The life of my elderly neighbor, the life of the prisoner, the life of the refugee trapped in a camp. All of these are more precious than my mere survival. Justice for the poor. That ought to be more precious to me than my own life.
Romero worshipped the God of life and preached a Gospel of life. He revised a saying by Irenaeus of Lyons to contextualize it for the church’s lived reality in El Salvador:
“The early Christians used to say, Gloria Dei, vivens homo. [The glory of God is the living human.] We can make this concrete by saying, Gloria Dei, vivens pauper. [The glory of God is the poor person, living.]”
The glory of God is the poor person, fully alive. The glory of God is the immunocompromised person, fully alive. The glory of God is my elderly neighbor, fully alive. Will we heed this call to further God’s glory? To promote his glory through the lives of the weak, the vulnerable, the elderly? To sacrifice ourselves for their sakes? Or will we listen instead to the call to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the nation, for the sake of an impersonal “economy”? Or worse, to sacrifice the weak among us for the sake of prosperity for the rest of us? The church must choose.