El SalvadorHuman Rights

Commemorative Essay: Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero on the Political Dimension of Faith.

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Frederick B. Mills


One of the reasons for Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero’s continuing broad appeal has been his embodiment of both a liberation theology and a politics of emancipation. In a speech Romero gave less than two months before his death, he focused on how these two dimensions of praxis are related.  Romero’s address, “La Dimensión Política de La Fe desde La Opción por Los Pobres” was delivered at the University of Louvain, Belgium, February 2, 1980, on the occasion of hisacceptance of an honorary doctorate.  His address defined three central concepts within his vision of theological practice.  I will attempt to interpret the main categories of acercamiento, encarnación, and conversión in a way that makes them accessible to humanists generally, but at the same time honors Romero’s faith-based Christian point of view.

Source: Christliche Initiative
Source: Christliche Initiative

Opting for the Poor

The premise of “La Dimensión Política” is that the faithful and the church itself may enter into history through a “preferential option for the poor”. The opting for the poor urged by Romero is not, at first, motivated by any profound understanding of the experience of the poor. And one should concede right at the start that there is no guarantee that even an intimate experience of poverty puts one on the side of the poor. Indeed, one may have such experience and yet betray the interests of the community in order to obtain some personal benefit. In the El Salvador of 1980 there was no shortage of those willing to inform on their neighbors and collaborate with ORDEN and its death squads.

The distinguishing factor for champions of the poor is not a narrow self-interest, but faith, or, more generally, a good will, a will that seeks to realize the potential of our common humanity. The faithful one has some intuition, based on the moral law, that opting for the poor is consistent with willing the good, but this intuition, and its object, the good, remains as yet undeveloped. We are focused by Romero, then, on those who opt for the poor even before they have experienced or come to empathize with their situation.

Despite the early intuitions that motivate one to opt for the poor, a circular type of reasoning appears to triumph here. Even assuming a good will, how does one authentically opt for the poor without having first shared in their experience? This is a legitimate question for the many liberals, who have, then and now, fallen into a paternalistic attitude towards the poor, promoting mere asistencialismo rather than true emancipation. At best, the liberal consciousness acknowledges the evils of poverty, and even sympathizes with the poor, but never seriously calls into the question the very institutions and structures that produce and reproduce extreme economic inequality. At worst, the liberal consciousness, under the cover of high-minded principles of human rights, democracy and liberty, justifies the support of violence by the oppressors. The variety of mystifications used by US policy makers to justify military aid to El Salvador included, in 1980, such attributes as preserving stability, fighting international communism, and maintaining leverage over the security forces to encourage reform. In reality, this mentality translates to preserving oligarchic “rights”, repressing a broad-based revolution, and supporting a military which is committing mass murder.

In opting for the poor, and at the same time taking care to avoid the twin pitfalls of paternalism and liberalism, a nascent good will is already present, a will that seeks to find both its own and the other’s humanity in a relationship of reciprocity. The good will sees that one cannot realize one’s own humanity unless one finds oneself in the other, unless one loves. But not just any other exhibits the potential for promoting the common good. It is the poor who exhibit this potential. Of course we are not naïve enough to accept just any claims for “the new man” that arises in the struggle for emancipation. We are well aware that false idols can arise even in progressive quarters. And we realize that the struggle for social and economic justice may be perpetual, and will likely face detours along the way. The point is that political equality and social justice for all is consistent with the interests of the poor; moreover, it is urgently demanded. And by contrast, the interests of the oligarchy cannot be universalized because they are inherently antagonistic to political equality and social justice. In the early 1980’s, after the failure of several civilian—military juntas, it became increasingly clear that the hard liners in the Salvadoran oligarchy and its allies in the army, the security forces, and ORDEN, had only two things to offer those who sought real structural economic and social change: terror and death.

Romero concedes, then, that the preferential option for the poor is exactly that—a partiality, a choice, but it is a choice that is consistent with the mission of the church to serve all Salvadorans. Romero, however, was interested in serving even those who are powerful: “Desde ellos [los pobres] podrá la Iglesia ser para todos, podrá también prestar un servicio a los poderosos a través de una pastoral de conversión; pero no a la inversa, como tantas veces ha ocurrido.” This “pastoral de conversión” then, is not only for the poor, but also for the rich and powerful.  In his homilies and radio broadcasts, Romero reached out to all Salvadorans.

Source: Human Right Studies
Source: Human Right Studies

From ‘Coming Close’ to ‘Incarnation’ and ‘Conversion’

Again, the good will, though opting for the poor, is not yet grounded in a lived experience of poverty and oppression. For this reason it opts for a still abstract universal, the mere concept of humanity. The opting then, arises at first  in the form of duty. The good will understands its duty, but it does not perceive and feel it. This alienation from the object of faith (or the good will) is an obstacle on the path not only to a deeper understanding of the other, but to self-realization. The good will must somehow move from the safety of a spectator’s view of the world to the embodiment of a struggle for emancipation. In so far as the one opting is still a mere spectator, humanity is still abstract.  But in so far as the one opting actually becomes part of the community of the poor, humanity is concrete and expressed in each individual.

This movement from the abstract to concrete humanity, from the spectator consciousness to solidarity is traced out by Romero as a path from the coming closer to the poor to incarnation and conversion: “Este acercamiento al mundo de los pobres es lo que entendemos a la vez como encarnación y como conversión.” I will attempt an interpretation of this movement presently.

The good will faithfully moves towards the concrete universal by way of an acercamiento (a coming close) to the poor. The good will realizes that only through coming closer will it be able to fill in the content of the concept of humanity and arrive at the lived experience of the poor. For Romero, this meant not only personally placing himself among and defending the poor, but placing the church itself into history amidst the social and political conflict between rich and poor in El Salvador.

The coming closer of the person of faith to the poor sets in motion a dialectic wherein the latter share their lives and the faith of the former is deepened and reinvigorated. In concrete terms, transporting ourselves back to the 1980’s, the one coming closer to the poor experiences in the flesh or by proximity how concentration of wealth and power in El Salvador is directly related to hunger; malnutrition; lack of access to education, health care, housing, and potable water; and the disappearance, torture, and murder of thousands of Salvadorans. The coming closer also shows the faithful the aspirations of the poor to become the protagonists of their own eventual emancipation. It shows the links between this struggle for emancipation and the political dimension of popular organization and resistance. Again, this coming closer in turn deepens the commitment of the faithful and fills in the concept of humanity with real content.

Romero explains in this speech how coming close to the poor overcomes alienation; the abstract universal is replaced by a concrete universal in which one finds not only the other but oneself. For Romero, the suffering of the poor is the suffering of the sons and daughters of God in history, on earth. So a deepening of one’s relationship with the poor is also seen as a deepening of faith and a coming closer to the divine. The coming closer, Romero urges, leads to both the incarnation of the individual among the poor and the conversion of the individual to defending the interests of the poor.

Romero states: “El constatar estas realidades y dejarnos impactar por ellas, lejos de apartarnos de nuestra fe, nos ha remitido al mundo de los pobres como a nuestro verdadero lugar, nos ha movido como primer paso fundamental a encarnarnos en el mundo de los pobres. En él hemos encontrado los rostros concretos de los pobres de que nos habla Puebla.”

This incarnation sets up a dialectic between faith and practice in the service of the poor, with each pole of the relationship deepening the other. For Romero, this incarnation into the socio-political reality of the poor concretizes one’s faith:

“La dimensión política de la fe se descubre y se la descubre correctamente más bien en una práctica concreta al servicio de los pobres. En esa práctica se descubre su mutual relación y también su diferenciación. La fe es la que impulsa en un primer momento a encarnarse en el mundo socio-político de los pobres y a animar los procesos liberadores, que son también socio-políticos. Y esa encarnación y esa praxis a su vez concretizan los elementos fundamentales de la fe.”

 From Incarnation to Persecution

This incarnation and conversion (the two are inseparable) expresses itself not only in giving hope to the poor, but in defending them in their efforts to unmask the dominant ideology and seek their own liberation. The coming closer, then, and the subsequent incarnation and conversion, leads to the political dimension of faith.

Romero states: “Esta opción de la Iglesia por los pobres es la que explica la dimensión política de su fe en sus raíces y rasgos mas fundamentales. Porque ha optado por los pobres reales y no ficticios, porque ha optado por los realmente oprimidos y reprimidos, la Iglesia vive en el mundo de lo político y se realiza como Iglesia también a través de lo político.”

By entering the dimension of the political and defending the poor, the church realizes itself. It also suffers concretely the same persecution as the poor.  As Romero points out: “De nuevo son los pobres los que nos hacen comprender lo que realmente ha ocurrido. Y por ello la Iglesia ha entendido la persecución desde los pobres. La persecución ha sido ocasionada por la defensa de los pobres y no es otra cosa que cargar con el destino de los pobres.” This is the fate of those who literally embody in their own flesh the lived experience of the poor and accompany the poor in their struggle for liberation. The extreme right and their allies in the security forces and death squads targeted priests and others in the popular church and ultimately, the Archbishop himself. But they could not silence the message of Romero, as this message continued to be heard throughout the civil war and inspires a new generation to a liberating praxis.

The question, therefore, for Romero, is not whether the church has some political impact, but just what that impact should be according to faith. Referring to Vatican Council II, Romero urges that “la esencia de la Iglesia esta en su misión de servicio al mundo, en su misión de salvarlo en totalidad, y de salvarlo en la historia, aquí y ahora.”  Here Romero addresses not only the reality of El Salvador, but of the polis in general and insists that “…los pobres son los que nos dicen que es la “polis”, la ciudad y que significa para la Iglesia vivir realmente en el mundo.” For Romero, then, the liberation theology requires first and foremost the “coming close” of the church to the world of the poor. If we translate this into existential terms, it means that we ought to seek ways to replace abstract notions of the isolated ego with concrete lived experience of community, and to replace liberal notions of “human rights” and “liberty”—which are only selectively applied in the service of capital– with real solidarity.

 “La Dimensión Política,” speaks to all those who are committed to realizing humanistic values in the world. The processes of coming close to the poor, of incarnation, and of conversion, trace out the path from the merely abstract concept of humanity to the lived experience of community. From an existential point of view, this means that the praxis of solidarity itself can expect to produce solidarity.

Frederick B. Mills is Professor of Philosophy at Bowie State University and Senior Research Fellow at COHA.

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