The Vocabulary of Peacemaking

Pastor Goede’s meditation from last night’s worship. Our Lenten theme is “Confronting Violence/Building Peace.”

Tomorrow is the feast day for Oscar Romero, who is on his way to being made a saint by the Vatican. So “feast day,” for him, means the day he was gunned down at the altar as he celebrated Mass in his small church in San Salvador in 1980. One member of a government death squad walked down the aisle and shot him several times with an automatic weapon and then calmly walked out to a waiting SUV.

That was what El Salvador was like during the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s. Romero had been appointed the archbishop of San Salvador because he was considered by his superiors to be spineless. But once he became the bishop, he was forced to look closely at the violence unfolding all around him. He couldn’t ignore that dozens of dead bodies that were found dumped on the streets of the capital each morning. He couldn’t ignore the poor, because they were the overwhelming majority in El Salvador, and they were getting louder and more insistent in crying out to their church to help them.

At first, Romero didn’t know what to do or what to say to express his emerging desire to do something, say something that would make a difference. But soon after he became the archbishop, he met some priests who had the words that he needed to respond to the physical and economic and social violence of his time and place. Some of that vocabulary could be helpful today, but I’m not hearing it in our political discourse. The words aren’t from Scripture, but they convey some of the lessons that Jesus tried to teach his followers.

Human right workers often do use one of the words, “impunity,” because it describes lots of situations in the world, and that’s an important word to understand in our time. I don’t know the Greek or Aramaic equivalent, but Jesus understood what impunity meant. Roman officials and soldiers could do whatever they wanted to Jews in Galilee and Judea, without ever having to worry about any consequences. That’s impunity. Death squads kidnapping and killing people every night, every year, in El Salvador without any consequences for the killers, that was impunity.

We fear that impunity might replace the rule of law in our country, but not so many people know that word, or how to put their fears into words. No so many people know how impunity came to be the norm in other countries. Christians can help with that, and we can help our society with our understanding of the godly nature of law and our sense that we receive God-given vocations to carry it out justly.

Another word that is useful for Christians to know and use in our time is “solidarity.” Jesus demonstrates a love for others who do not share his circumstances, but he understands and respects them, works with them and heals them. Romero was the archbishop, but he gained true spiritual authority when he learned how to step out of some aspects of his role so that he could be in solidarity with the people. He learned to be a real partner with people who were considered to be dirt poor, that is, no better than dirt in the eyes of the powerful in El Salvador. He began to have a sense that he was there to serve the people, not the other way around, and that’s why he was killed.

Solidarity relies on another important concept, “self-determination.” Romero listened to the meek and those who were poor in spirit, and he tried to respond to their ideas and desires, to help them build a better life. Romero was using his office to build peace, and that was a threat to the powerful, who were building something else, their own self-centered kingdoms that used the poor like slaves or stepping stones.

If we want to confront and respond to violence, we have to have some tools to build peace. “Impunity,” “solidarity,” “self-determination,” those are all good words to know and to use. They express the needs of our time, the need to preserve the rule of law, the need to stand with many people different from us, and the need to allow people to tell their own stories and envision their own futures. They’re words that help us to be kingdom builders in our time and place.