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The Only Violence Permissible in the Gospel

Rubén Rosario Rodríguez

The legacy of a Latin American saint and his call to the global church to nonviolent resistance in imitation of Christian martyrs.

Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Saint Louis University
May 10, 2019

The Only Violence Permissible in the Gospel

My family moved to the United States from the Republic of Panamá in May of 1980. One of my lasting memories of growing up in Central America was hearing the tragic news about Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination on March 24, 1980. Although raised evangélico (Protestant) I—like most of the people of Latin America, Catholics, Protestants, and atheist Communists included—embraced Monseñor Romero as nuestro Santo (“our Saint’).

In 1994, Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter on Preparation for the Jubilee of the Year 2000, reminded the Church of its origins as a martyr church, “The Church of the first millennium was born of the blood of the martyrs [Tertullian],” and nowhere “have as many Christians been persecuted and killed on account to their commitment to faith and justice as in Latin America.”1 No other figure embodies this recent history of martyrdom better than Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who, despite official resistance to his canonization,2 has been embraced by the people of Latin America and the world as Monseñor Romero, Santo de América (“Monseñor Romero, Saint of the Americas”) and Santo Romero de los pobres (“Romero, Saint of the Poor”).

Romero’s lasting witness is one of hope in the midst of great suffering and nonviolence in the face of political violence.

Paschal Joy in the Midst of Suffering

The Latin American experience of persecution and martyrdom does not romanticize suffering or martyrdom. When mere survival is a daily struggle, death is never good, never desired. Archbishop Romero writes: “The only violence permitted by the Gospel is that which one allows to be done to one’s self. When Christ allowed himself to be killed is the only legitimate violence: to let oneself be killed…for the love of humanity.”3 This emphasis on martyrdom does not originate from some misplaced desire or unmet psychological need to suffer like Christ, but is grounded in the very nature of God, who is a God of love, justice, and compassion.

During his three years as archbishop, Romero often preached about martyrdom, not just because of the constant suffering and death endured by the people of El Salvador, but because as Christians, “we should all be willing to die for our faith, even if the Lord does not call us to that honor.”4 As Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the founding voices of Latin American liberation theology, reminds us, “Martyrdom is something that happens but is not sought.”5 Despite a long history as the victims of systemic violence, the people of Latin America are able to proclaim the good news of salvation and have learned how “to talk about a God who is revealed as love in a situation characterized by poverty and oppression.”6 The paschal mystery at the root of the Christian faith is good news: “The love of God is mightier than death and keeps the hope of a people alive. God is life.”7

Christian Martyrdom as Nonviolent Resistance

Archbishop Romero is simply one among the many thousands of anonymous Christian witnesses who have died at the hands of corrupt governments in Latin America, often with tacit support from the United States government, yet his fame and reputation have done much to draw attention to their suffering. For these nameless victims—the thousands upon thousands of los desaparecidos (“the disappeared”) of El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere—whom Ignacio Ellacuría has labeled the “crucified people,” Romero has become la voz de los sin voz (“the voice of the voiceless”).

“In other words, suffering and martyrdom are not accidents of history but necessary components of Christ’s redemption of humankind as mediated through the Church.”

Politically Romero was caught in a difficult situation—preferring nonviolence as the only truly Christian option—yet called upon as archbishop to provide guidance to Christians trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of political violence. To that end, the archbishop appealed to the Christian just-war tradition in his third and fourth pastoral letters, defending the leftist revolutionary movements without condoning their violence, in order to create a public space in which both sides could engage in public dialogue and negotiation without fear of retribution. Yet, guided by the nonviolent witness of the early Christian martyrs, Romero consistently preached that the only violence permissible in the Gospel is to allow oneself to be martyred.

Embracing the possibility of martyrdom is not an act of passive acceptance, but a world-transforming political act made possible by the cross of Christ whose ultimate end is liberation for the victims of violence and restoration of God’s justice in the world: “That is why it is said of the martyrs that they did not lack courage when they let themselves be killed; because from their situation as victims they were stronger and thus able to win the victory of the persecuted.”1 Just as the body of Christ was broken for us, just as the Church is the body of Christ, so the Church must live in solidarity with the broken people of this world.

Martyrdom as a Model of Christian Discipleship

Tertullian’s observation, that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” has a depth of meaning not obvious to most contemporary believers. If we take Tertullian’s metaphor seriously—that the blood of the martyrs is the life-source of the church—we have to affirm that without the blood of the martyrs, i.e., without persecution and martyrdom, the church cannot live and grow. In other words, suffering and martyrdom are not accidents of history but necessary components of Christ’s redemption of humankind as mediated through the Church.

In today’s political climate martyrdom is viewed in overwhelmingly negative terms as primarily the actions of religious extremists willing to commit suicide for what they view as a noble and liberating cause, often in a manner designed to produce the greatest possible harm. Not surprisingly, the topic of martyrdom is often silenced within North American Christianity by relegating it to the historical past, or by minimizing its relevance as a reality affecting Christians under repressive regimes in some far-off corner of the world. While martyrdom is an actuality of global Christianity in our time, as evidenced by the persecuted church in China, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, I suggest that martyrdom, as experienced by the earliest Christians, can and ought to serve as a model of Christian living even in the absence of direct religious or political persecution.

Embracing a theology of martyrdom as one of the victims of repression makes sense for the people of El Salvador; however, Latin American liberation theology challenges the first-world Church to adopt the view of the victims in its theology and practice. In other words, we must become a martyr church in the absence of persecution, embracing a theology of martyrdom while located firmly within the comfort of the Constantinian Christendom of North America. Accordingly, the Church ought to resist any oppressive power that dehumanizes and violates the image of God in any and every person, with the understanding that embracing the good news of Jesus Christ entails the very real possibility of persecution and death (Mt 16:24-26; Jn 15:20) in service to others.

This means that all those who choose to bear witness to the good news of the God of life over against the culture of death place themselves in an adversarial relationship with the powers of this world, becoming potential martyrs in the ongoing struggle between the Creator and a rebellious creation.

Why Should We Care?

Today there is an all too common narrative that says we human beings are all hardwired to be selfish. We are animals trapped in a vicious cycle of survival where not only the strong survive, but most especially the strong who place their self-interest ahead of everyone else’s. That is what it means to be human without God. But the Bible tells a different story. We are created in the image of God; created to be like Christ by helping to carry one another’s burdens. The problem is we have no clue how to get there from here. How do we learn to live our lives “for others” when we have been conditioned since birth by both nature and culture to look out for number one and live only for me?

Christian apologist and fiction writer C. S. Lewis famously said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”2

In that spirit, I am suggesting that the example of the early Christian martyrs can nurture the necessary virtues that allow us to endure suffering for the sake of others, much as it did for Archbishop Romero during his time of trials. After all, we have trainers to help us with every other facet of our lives. Are you fat and out of shape? Fitness trainer. Has your marriage become stale and boring? Marriage counselor. Has your sex life become predictable? Sex therapist. Even Citibank, after a series of financial scandals, has hired a theologian to serve as its ethics consultant. So why not embrace the witness of the early Christian martyrs as our own personal spiritual fitness regiment?

Christian Witness as Suffering for Others

The martyrs’ proclamation is believable because of the constancy of their witness in trusting the promise of resurrection to eternal life and not backing away from God’s truth, not even in the face of threats, persecution, torture, or death. At the core of the early Christian witness lies a commitment to nonviolent resistance most clearly attested by the martyrs’ ability to forgive their oppressors, as Christ had done with his dying breath: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34, NRSV). This pattern is repeated in Christian martyr narratives, from the martyrdom of Stephen in the New Testament (Acts 7:54–60), to the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne in the mid-second century, to modern-day martyrs such as Archbishop Oscar Romero.

“Thus, God offers Christ on the cross as the ultimate act of liberation from the all-too-human desire for revenge.”

We live in troubled political times, when the very possibility of a civil society built on a common moral discourse seems beyond our reach. Yet, if Christian praxis begins and ends with the example of Jesus, who, as the Gospel witness reveals, favored nonviolence and peacemaking, discourse not coercion ought to characterize the encounter between liberals and conservatives, Catholics and Protestants, mainline Protestants and Evangelicals, and all of the preceding above with people of other faiths. Even when the other is unwilling to engage in rational discourse, or becomes outright violent, the example of the early Christian martyrs—grounded in the Biblical witness—is to engage the other through nonviolence.

Politics is typically viewed in terms of instrumental action designed to achieve immediate practical results. For example: speed limits are enforced in order to reduce traffic accidents and minimize potential injuries and loss of life; capital punishment is instituted as a deterrent for the most anti-social crimes like homicide. The same instrumental logic, however, also guides terrorist political activity, as evidenced by the rise of suicide attacks as both a tactic and a tool of propaganda. By defining martyrdom as a form of nonviolent political resistance that entails a willingness to suffer for others, the intention is not to apply the standard of pragmatic instrumentality to the self-sacrifice of the early Christian martyrs, but to make room for divine action in human history as an alternative to political expediency and instrumentality.

The Christian vision of a New Jerusalem does not negate the sins of the oppressors, nor minimize the injustices and suffering endured by the victims—there will be a divine judgment and condemnation—but it recognizes that genuine liberation cannot remain bound to human acts of liberation without divine forgiveness. Thus, God offers Christ on the cross as the ultimate act of liberation from the all-too-human desire for revenge.  Forgiveness is the martyrs’ message to the executioner, by not offering violent resistance but accepting their fate with Christ’s words on their lips: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34, NRSV).

If God’s ultimate act of self-revelation—as the Christian faith teaches—is Christ forgiving his own torturers and executioners, what are the implications for contemporary Christian discipleship? By offering Christ on the cross as the ultimate revelation of God’s love for a sinful and rebellious humanity, God elevates forgiveness, and with it the accompanying praxis of nonviolence, as the guiding principle of Christian political action—even in the face of unjust suffering.