Blog post from CWS member Jennifer Owens – Jofre
23rd May 2019
I come to this text as a daughter of immigrants. My father’s family came to the United States in the 1800s, crossing the Atlantic from Germany, Ireland and Wales. La familia de mi madre immigrated from Bolivia several generations later, their four small children in tow, seeking economic opportunity and a better life in Southern California. As I’ve shared with my Latinx Theology students, my Mamita, as we called my maternal grandmother, loved to tell the story of coming to the United States. Whenever anything big happened in our family—if someone graduated, began her career, was married, gave birth—she would remind us that none of it would have been possible, had she not convinced my Abuelito that they should bring their family to the US.
I situate myself in this way to demonstrate that context matters. We don’t leave behind who we are when we interpret the Gospel, but rather, we bring these experiences with us in our encounters with the text. Far from a blank slate, I come to the text in my particularity. Methodist theologian and historian Justo González calls on us, in this process, to read the Bible in Spanish—to interpret biblical texts in ways that acknowledge the contexts from which we come, that are attentive to the power dynamics at work in the text, that discern what is Good News today and how we are implicated in bringing it about in the here and now.
Turning back to Luke 4, the adult Jesus we meet there is also a child of immigrants—more aptly put, he was the son of refugee parents, an asylee himself. Raised in the shadow of the Roman Empire, Jesus was born in a place that made room where there had been none. And soon after, his family fled the threat of state-sanctioned violence, hid in Egypt, only returning to the backwater town of Nazareth after the threat of violence against the boy children of his community had ended. Just before we meet him in today’s Gospel, Jesus had done battle with evil in the desert, which, in turn, prepared him for preaching in Galilee.
A faithful Jewish man, he honored the custom of his faith community in attending synagogue, and he proclaimed the words of Isaiah we heard a moment ago. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring Good News to the poor.” Having returned from being tempted in the desert, where he had rejected earthly power, he begins to speak what is true, ready to face the consequences. At first, those who had gathered at the synagogue spoke highly of him, but the conversation quickly sours. “Isn’t this that carpenter’s son? Who does he think he is?” We see the consequences of telling the truth. We see how community responds to his announcement of Good News to the poor when he narrowly escapes being hurled off a cliff, a slightly tamer foreshadowing of future events in his life.
This passage describes a key moment, I think, in Jesus fully stepping into his vocation. It is the beginning of his public ministry. And it makes a claim on those of us who aim to follow in his footsteps, seeking to step fully into our own vocations, preparing to begin our own public ministries. That claim is this: Our vocations must include work for justice alongside those who are poor and oppressed. We must speak truth in public ways, even if the consequences cause our communities to attempt to throw us off a cliff. This is Good News, sisters, brothers, and siblings. It is Good News for those of us gathered here. It is Good News for the communities to which we belong. And it is good news to those who are poor and those who are oppressed.
Reading the Bible in Spanish, we must ask ourselves who is poor, who is oppressed. Before they were members of the caravan, the asylees of Guatemala and Honduras currently making their way through México to the United States were among the poorest of the poor, the most desperately oppressed. And they are in urgent need of our focused attention. These are the poor to whom we are called to bring Good News, and they, in turn, speak what is true to those of us who have the privilege of papers, who enjoy the benefits of documentation, who have US American citizenship.
With the Feast of All Saints in my tradition drawing so near, I cannot help being reminded of the members of the cloud of witnesses who teach us about our vocations. While Dom Hélder Câmara has not been canonized, I see him as a prophet of his times whose actions echo the words of our Gospel today. He stepped fully into his vocation, speaking and acting on what is true, regardless of the consequences. The Catholic Archbishop of Recife, Brazil, from the mid1960s to the mid1980s, Câmara accompanied the poor and the oppressed of that community in the context of violent repression from the Brazilian dictatorship that had taken over the government of his day. He was an outspoken advocate and practitioner of liberation theology as it was articulated in Latin American contexts. A small man in stature, Câmara had a booming and powerful voice, which he used to critique—openly and pointedly—the military dictatorship that aimed to keep the poor and oppressed of his archdiocese and their country mired in their suffering. Derided by some as the Red Bishop, Câmara is often quoted as having said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
Following his lead, I am compelled to ask of the asylees of the caravan: Why are they poor? What is happening in Central America that is prompting them to leave everything they know, facing violence at the hands of the Mexican police at the bridge at their southern border, waking up to clouds of pesticides the Mexican police turned on them in Chiapas? Members of the caravan come from across Central America, but I am going to focus for a moment on Honduras, one of the most economically poor nations in the Américas. As our government did in several Central American nations in the 1980s, the United States intervened militarily in Honduran affairs, continuing to provide military aid through the present day. Further, our government supported the overthrow of democratically elected President Zelaya as recently as 2009. The justification for these actions has to do with protecting US American economic and political interests, especially as those interests relate to “free trade” through policies like CAFTA and NAFTA, as well as “the drug war.” Those whom these policies affect most directly are our Central American brothers and sisters who are already economically poor, especially Indigenous women and children. These poor and oppressed people are fleeing their homes and facing such violence in the slim hope of a safer and more economically secure life because US foreign policy leaves them no choice. Fully aware of the risk of their families being forcefully separated if they survive this journey to the United States, these poor and oppressed people become refugees and asylees as they join the caravan.
Like the Jesus of Luke 4, many of us gathered in this space are preparing to step more fully into our own vocations. Some of us already have. To do so, we must ask ourselves, as leaders in our churches: What does living out our vocations look like, in light of our shared context, a context in which the economic privileges of our US American lifestyles are so closely related to the economic suffering of our Central American brothers, sisters, and siblings?
If we are to speak truth in our churches about these realities, we must first discern what is true. In our current political moment, discerning what is true is no small feat. However, we can take a cue from Reformed theologian Karl Barth, who knew of the need for the Bible and the newspaper to be read alongside one another. If we apply González’s advice about reading the Bible to the way we read the newspaper, as well, we will ask ourselves about how news stories portray the poor and the oppressed, in what colors they paint refugees and asylees, about whose interests the perspectives presented in these news stories serve. And we must invite the Spirit of the Lord to be upon us, too, that she might guide our discernment of what is true, that we might have the courage to speak that truth to the church communities of which we are a part.
As this Gospel passage reminds us, we can encounter resistance from members of our communities when we speak what of what is true. Some among us will tell us that we should leave politics outside the doors of our churches, that we must not politicize the Gospel. However, remaining neutral in the face of the suffering of the poor and the oppressed is, in fact, a political act. It is a political act that ignores the wise counsel of today’s Gospel. It is a political act that prioritizes our economic comfort over the needs of others—namely, the refugees and asylees currently on the move in the caravan. It is a political act that turns our faces not only from their suffering, but also from the truth of a Jesus who suffered similarly—as a child whose safety was threatened by the political circumstances into which he was born. This turning away fails to recognize that the Gospels of our shared traditions are, in and of themselves, political texts. Just three short years after we meet the Jesus of Luke 4, he was put to death, in part, for being a political dissident. This is the Jesus of history. This is the Christ of our faith. His example calls on us to resist the temptation to turn away from the economic and political suffering of those who are like he was.
As many of you certainly are aware, Pope Francis recently canonized Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who was archbishop of San Salvador during the civil war that nation endured in the early 1980s. Saint Romero was intimately familiar with what it means to step fully into his vocation, to speak truth to power, and to risk dire consequences. When Romero was early in his ministry as archbishop, members of the Salvadoran military assassinated Fr. Rutilio Grande, who had encouraged economically poor people living in rural areas to interpret the Gospels in light of their lives. When Romero went to be among those whose lives Grande’s ministry had touched, he was so moved by their suffering. That movement of the Spirit among them led to his conversion—a turning from comfort and toward suffering, a realization of the connections between the two that would not allow him to return to his former ways of being.
The Salvadoran Civil War largely was fought between two sides—the military who aimed to protect the economic interests of the wealthy and paramilitary groups who fought on the part of the economically poor. During regular broadcasts of his homilies on public radio, Romero called for justice that would bring about peace, begging those who had taken up arms against their neighbors to lay them down, calling on those in power to broker a just peace that prioritized the needs of the economically poor who continue to make up the majority of the Salvadoran population. They failed to listen, and he was gunned down while celebrating Mass with a community of vowed religious women there. He embodied the ideas to which our Gospel points today. And the wisdom he spoke with his life continues to ring true for we who see ourselves as church leaders today. Romero said,
The church must suffer for speaking the truth, for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin. No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted.”
This is Good News, sisters and brothers. It is Good News for those of us gathered here. It is Good News for the communities to which we belong. And it is good news to those who are poor and those who are oppressed. Stepping fully into our vocations, let us have confidence in who and whose we are and whom we serve. Let us go forth to treat our sores. Let us believe in Christ the asylee. Let us be converted from the sins that prevent us from working on the part of justice for asylees today. Amen.
(image credit Google images)