Celebrating with the Martyrs: Cavanaugh's reflection on Romero's theology
By Keith Hebden
In Dying for the Eucharist or being killed by it? Romero's Challenge to the First-World Christians, (Note)Cavanaugh uses the theology and praxis of two of San Salvador's priest-martyr's, Oscar Romero and Rutilio Grande, to update St Paul's challenge to the Church not to eat and drink to condemnation (1 Cor. 11: 29 – 30) but rather carry the in the body the death of Jesus (2 Cor. 4: 10). (p. 177 – 178)
William T. Cavanaugh, a radical theologian based in the
Romero came under intense pressure from the elites who wanted no such "anticipation" but refused to acquiesce becoming for the first time a public prophetic voice and bringing the theologian of martyrdom back into the consciousness of the church.
Eventually Oscar Romero was assassinated – but not silenced – for his outspoken theology. He was shot while presiding at the Eucharist. For Cavanaugh, Romero's life, martyrdom, and teaching highlight the difference between dying for the Eucharist and being killed by it. One does the latter when eating the Eucharist without being in solidarity for others who share in the one cup but unequally so. Cavanaugh's energies in this paper are on illustrating the former. This means the article makes for a constructive read.
Cavanaugh's Christian theology of martyrdom finds its prototype in the execution of Jesus: "Christ triumphs by dying ignominiously, tortured to death on a cross, then peaceably rising again to new life." (178) So for the church father's, like Athanasius, the continuing tradition of martyrdom is not a failure of the political expansion of the kingdom but proof of the victory of Christ. The martyrs "bring a foretaste of the kingdom," by living and willingly facing of death as though "death does not finally exist." (179) Cavanaugh points out that the persuasive nature of public martyrdom is often cleverly undermined by those regimes who by means of secrecy and propaganda re-cast martyrs terrorists or delinquents. But this is where Cavanaugh moves the reader on to a more radical understanding of martyrdom than popular religion often allows. Martyrdom cannot be "the cult of heroic individuals" but rather the sacrificial act that sustains the body of Christ. (181)
What brought repression to a fever pitch in El Salvador in the 1970s and 80s was not merely the actions of heroic individuals but the efforts of the people to organize into bodies of a social nature: peasant cooperatives, base ecclesial communities, unions, student movements, and women's groups – many of them sponsored by the church and all of them a threat to the atomization of the poor that had traditionally worked so well for El Salvador's landed elite. The repression was meant to disappear, not merely individual bodies, but especially social bodies, largely through the spread of fear. To participate in any kind of social body meant confronting the very real possibility of one's own death. (181)
So it is the witness of the church to the efficacy of the death of the individual that makes her or him a martyr. Implicit in this, because of Jesus' model of martyrdom, is the ability of the martyr to resist violence with nonviolence. Anyone who resists martyrdom violently is not a martyr but someone overcome, tragically, by a greater violence than their own.
Cavanaugh brings to bear on this theology of martyrdom a theology of the Eucharist: that in sharing in the body of Christ we become that body and therefore partake in the sacrifice of God to us: a mutuality of grace. (182) But also that the Eucharist both draws the prototypical martyrdom into the present and the eschatological hope of the kingdom into the same present moment. In all of this he drawn on the theology of Augustine of Hippo, Roman Catholic teaching, and scriptural inference. (183 – 184)
The Letter to the Hebrews makes clear to the humble group of assembled Christians that their liturgical action is no mere earthly mumbling… At the Eucharist, the feast of the last day irrupts into earthly time, and the future breaks into the present. (184)
He poignantly notes that this eschatological element of the Eucharist is one easily forgotten by minority world Christians but not so by the persecuted Church. For Cavanaugh both the Eucharist and the martyrs participate in the sacrifice that makes builds and reveals a body of people. (186) They are signs and samples of the
This is not simply a matter of wishful thinking; our unity is true eschatologically, for we will all feast tighter in the kingdom. Where divisions exist now, in history, Christ in the Eucharist appears in judgement, according to Paul, and the judgement is severe…(186)
The Eucharistic feast penetrates through the nonsense of globalisations myth of world harmony; of "Thai villagers and Minnesotan suburbanites happily communing on the internet." (187) In the feast of the kingdom we are invited to properly discern the body and to give greatest honour to those considered least important. Romero shows us the way.