Martyrdom Is No Bloodless Myth

The fifth canto of the British poet Geoffrey Hill’s poem “Genesis” contains what I think are among the most quietly terrifying lines in modern English religious verse:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

And by Christ’s blood are men made free
Though in close shrouds their bodies lie
Under the rough pelt of the sea;

Though Earth has rolled beneath her weight
The bones that cannot bear the light.

Hill structures his poem around the days of biblical creation, each day placing himself in the immanent frame of the divinely-authored world, a world right on the razor’s edge where despoliation and redemption meet with such a mathematical precision that neither seems to intermingle with the other. The violence of Hill’s sinful world resists its redemption through the generation of pain and the production of blood; the redeemer, however, meets blood with blood, his own blood, a counter-blood by which “are men made free.” Thus, when Hill delivers the line, “There is no bloodless myth will hold,” it is not as an oracle, but rather as a confession, a confession of the violence that characterizes the world, a confession that redemption is always and already preceded and pierced by violence.

With the recent announcement from the Vatican of the canonization of the Salvadoran Oscar Romero, Hill’s poem came to mind. Romero was assassinated as he said Mass on March 24, 1980 with a single bullet to the chest. It was reported that as his blood soaked his white vestments, it ran also onto the scattered hosts he had only begun to consecrate. It is hard to imagine a clearer distillation of the Eucharistic moment at which the blood of violence is transmuted into the counter-blood of redemption. There is no bloodless myth will hold.

One of most impressive things about Fr. John Thiede, SJ’s recent book Remembering Oscar Romero and the Martyrs of El Salvador (Lexington Books, 2017) is his stalwart refusal of any bloodlessness when confronted by the witness of Romero and those who shared his fate during the political unrest of El Salvador in the 1980’s. If there is a fundament of theological argument in Remembering Oscan Romero, it is an echo of God’s words to Cain in Genesis 4:10: “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.” God’s words to Cain echoes the reproach to Adam and Even as they were expelled from the garden. The experience of reading this book, certainly amplified during this season of Lent, is to be confronted with the Lord’s admonition to listen, to hear the blood of the slain crying out for justice.

Remembering Oscar Romero resists a different kind of bloodlessness, one that as an academic I recognize in myself as a temptation, in which the bloody phenomenon is occluded by a neutralizing theology. Perhaps Thiede’s central achievement, one that approaches a true gift, is that he gives no ground to the tendency to objectify and render the icon clastic. What emerges from his careful recounting and contemplation of the murders of the Salvadoran faithful is not a eulogy, but rather a fraternal preservation of the witness of one of Thiede’s own Jesuit brothers and an offering of that witness again to the Church. Throughout, Thiede follows the language of Jon Sobrino, SJ, who insists that the perennial theological temptation is Docetism; just as it was in the Christological debates of the first few Christian centuries, so also does that same quiet pull of Docetism lure us into a reality in which both the Cross of Christ and his continued crucifixion in the deaths of his martyrs are reassuringly absent.

Thiede is well aware of the degree to which the murder of Romero and other Salvadoran witnesses is still colored by the ecclesiastical controversy surrounding liberation theology, which manages to persist to the present, though thankfully somewhat diminished in terms of the level of its controversy. Again, it would be wrong to take this book as a defense or apologia for liberation theology as such, but the question posed is whether the Church can conceive of the Gospel’s mandates in a way that refuses to countenance the question of the political liberation of the poor any longer. Interestingly, Thiede does not set about a program of practice for liberation or an ethic of solidarity in this volume. He knows that such things must come from a deeper, renewed, and manifestly painful reconsideration of the saving work of Jesus Christ. To reconsider Jesus Christ must be the first fruit of any authentic theology of liberation.

The first four chapters of Remembering Oscar Romero form a foundational core in which the history and traditional understanding of martyrdom (Chapter 1) and its present reality (Chapter 2) are introduced. What comes to the fore is Thiede’s careful demonstration of the historical context in which the concept of martyrdom was developed, that is to say, that the reality of the martyr precedes in every respect our thinking about martyrdom. Though Thiede is not critical of the Church’s inherent and essential theological task, which certainly includes the formalization of concepts, he does want us—and here he seems to follow Juan Luis Segundo, SJ, though he does not appear explicitly in the book—to recognize, even admit, the degree of comfort we might find in the endless deferral of attending to the phenomenon by parsing and re-parsing definitions. The primary question posed is not really whether the definition of a martyr should be extended, though he does ask it, but rather whether or not the classical definition is adequate to the witness of Romero and the Salvadoran witnesses. The difference is one of logical priority; the first formulation of the question is akin to asking—and this is a bit of joke to readers of Borges—whether the original is faithful to its translation.

What characterizes the modern age of martyrdom is the killing of Christians for their faithful witness by those who share with them a common baptism. This development is fascinating: where classical martyrdom was produced from the odium fidei of their persecutors, what should we make of the murder of Christians because they have chosen to follow Jesus in their radical and vigorous solidarity with the poor by those who likewise confess belief in one God, Father, Son, and Spirit, one holy catholic and apostolic Church, one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and the life of the world to come? Thiede admits, and even at times seems to privilege, the traditional martyrs of odium fidei, but he does not turn from the pastoral, ecclesiastic, even just, need to recognize those who die in their compassionate witness as disciples of Jesus Christ to the poor. It is hard, I must admit, not to hear in the gentleness of Thiede’s challenge an echo of the plaintive words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel when he is accused of healing on the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (2:27).

In Chapter 3, Thiede recounts the history and geopolitical situation of Latin America in the 1970’s and 80’s in order to characterize the base conditions which would permit and sustain the persecution of the Christian poor and their advocates. What was the most striking, in my opinion, was the consistency in which Cold War rhetoric was used to discredit not only liberation theologians, but any politically visible advocacy for the poor. Thiede does an excellent job of situating the plight of the Salvadoran Christian poor within the catastrophe of the First World’s support of military dictatorships in the name of the fight against communism. Moreover, it seems worth pondering just how minor, at least statistically, the crisis in El Salvador really was within the broader context of the myriad coups, assassinations, deployment of US-trained and funded death squads, and so forth, caused by Cold War geopolitics all over the world. One certainty that Thiede prepares us for is an ever-longer litany of the martyrs. (For a deeper look into the early political history of El Salvador, I would recommend Erik Ching’s Authoritarian El Salvador: Politics and Origins the Military Regimes, 1880-1940).

Chapter 4 represents the heart of Remembering Oscar Romero in which Thiede’s four exemplars of Salvadoran martyrs: (1) Rutilio Grande, SJ, (2) Archbishop Oscar Romero, SJ, (3) the American churchwomen Ita Ford, Jan Donovan, Dorothy Kazel, and Maura Clark, and (4) the Jesuits Ignacio Ellacuría, Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martin-Baró, Amando Lopez, Juan Ramón Moreno, Joaquin López y López, and the cook at the Jesuit theologate Elba Ramos and her daughter Celina, all of whom were slaughtered at the University of Central America in El Salvador. The leanness of Thiede’s account of these exemplars provides only the ligament that attaches muscle to bone; it leaves a literary corpus in which the dead are preserved in the moment and particularity of their deaths. At the close of the chapter, following a modest conclusion, Thiede includes some twenty black and white pictures of the Salvadoran martyrs, their graves and memorials, and the University of Central America, some taken by the author. When looking at them, after reading the preceding four chapters, I was aware of how aesthetically desensitized I am when considering the martyrs: icons of the martyrdoms of Perpetua and Felicity and Polycarp, for example, or the Baroque depictions of St. Sebastian (Rubens’ being one of my favorites), like most religious and liturgical art, do conceal, and do so mercifully perhaps, the reality of martyrdom. That we have photographic record of Romero’s murdered body and images of the UCA martyrs lying face down on the ground after they had been executed brings a new meaning to that line of Rainer Maria Rilke: “for here there is no place /that does not see you. You must change your life.”

Throughout the first four chapters, Thiede consistently engages the liberation theology of Jon Sobrino, SJ as the primary lens through which to understand the Salvadoran martyrs and the nature of their witness. In Chapters 5 and 6, Thiede traces the development of Sobrino’s thought concerning martyrdom from the periods before and after the 1989 deaths of the UCA martyrs. As Thiede recounts, Sobrino was teaching at the UCA at the time of the murders and just happened to be away from the campus that day. The soldiers mistakenly dragged the body of Juan Ramón Moreno in Sobrino’s personal quarters, before hastily trying to frame their political enemies for the massacre. It might be complained that Thiede fails to acknowledge the controversy that surrounded Sobrino’s career, culminating in the 2007 notification from the CDF. I am not sure Thiede is fully justified in not including this controversy, but I think two points are in order. First, the nature of 2007 notification concerned his Christology and its ecclesiological implications, not his reflections of martyrdom per se. Second, though Thiede shares Sobrino’s worries about over-emphasizing the divinity of Christ to the point of Docetism, Thiede does not make Christological recommendations as such. Thiede is certainly right in foregrounding Sobrino’s insistence that the reality of martyrdom must be deeply connected to the human nature, experience, and death of Christ. That such a claim finds a new and powerful articulation in Sobrino certainly seems to stand irrespective of, even rightful, ecclesiastical worry. It should be noted, too, that Sobrino did in fact respond to the notification in apparent good faith, though the CDF did not find it adequate.

Central to both parts of Remembering Oscar Romero is Sobrino’s notion of the Jesuanic martyr, “one who dies like Jesus, at the hands of some hostile force.” Thiede recognizes the inherent difficulty in identifying a non-Christian victim of some hostile force a Christian martyr, but he does argue compellingly for Sobrino’s claim that we must expand our understanding of martyrdom to include the anonymous martyr, the nameless Christian victim of those same forces, of which El Salvador alone offers some 75,000. Interestingly, Thiede’s reading of Sobrino is not uncritical; he worries that in Sobrino’s continued widening of the notion of martyrdom he runs some risk of “dilut[ing] the meaning of the term.” Perhaps he detects in such a conceptual expansion a corollary hint of Docetism, a conceptual reification in which the historical, sacramental, and ecclesiological connection to classical martyrs and even the Salvadoran martyrs is lost.

There is much in Sobrino’s theology, as well as in the author’s treatment of it, that richly deserves attention and discernment that I cannot pursue here. But I wanted to write a review in which the merits of Remembering Oscar Romero and the Martyrs of El Salvador might be catalogued and the achievement of Fr. Thiede, which I confess is the contribution of a friend and an admired pastor (even if such a confession comes a bit late in the game), might be brought to an audience who deserves the chance to ponder in their hearts the tragedy and redemptive witness of the Salvadoran martyrs in his good company.

Remembering Oscar Romero and the Martyrs of El Salvador: A Cloud of Witnesses, by John Thiede, SJ, Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, 148 pp. $85.00 hardback.

Featured Image: Fra Angelico, St. Peter Martyr Altarpiece [detail], 1428; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.


Jay Martin

Jay Martin is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame and co-recipient of the 2018 Expanded Reason Award.  

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