Dead Men Left

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Oscar Romero and historical truth

Laban Tall, to my slight surprise, has expressed his admiration for the murdered Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero. Romero was assassinated whilst saying Mass 25 years ago this month, after loudly and courageously denouncing the activities of the military junta then ruling El Salvador. I say "surprise", since I'd naturally thought of Romero as one of us, a man of the left, a spokesman for the poor, and a leading light for Latin American liberation theology - a widely-held political judgement that would surely outweigh whatever personal example he had provided.

It is, however, a peculiarity of religious figures that their legacies are open to wildly varying, and often plainly opposed interpretations, even when their political actions seem unambiguous. This site lays out in brief the leftist narrative of Romero's life and works; this, written by a conservative Catholic, accuses the left of "body-snatching" and tells quite a different story.

There is - or there should be - nothing surprising in this. Religion, both (as Marx put it) the "opium of the masses" and the "heart of a heartless world", is inherently contradictory. The whole edifice of theology is built around that fact. Yet there has been a tendency on the supposed left, perhaps increasing in strength, to interpret religiously-motivated political activity as simply and one-sidedly bad: quite separately from the action taking place, and the intention involved. Christian Voice protesting against Jerry Springer: the Opera is plainly bad; Oscar Romero protesting against a military dictatorship is plainly good. Both based their claims on the Bible, but it would be quite wrong to judge them both solely by that criterion.

Naturally, it is not Christianity that bears the brunt of this interpretation. How else, other than through the crudest reduction of reality, can this eminently reasonable and liberal man be both banned from entering the US, and described by a "left-wing" micro-sect as an "Islamist reactionary"?