When theology can kill you…

Ignacio Ellacuría, SJ

We usually don’t think of theology as a deadly profession, but it can be.

I deliberately intend the double entendre of “profession” here: that is, it can mean both “the truth that one proclaims” and “the work that one performs.” One truth hammered home for me on my recent trip to El Salvador with other Berkeley Divinity School members is that both of these can be dangerous. And perhaps, when done radically close to the bone of Christian living, they should be dangerous.

On our first day in El Salvador, we visited La Universidad Centroamericana, (known as “La UCA” and pronounced “OOH-ka”), the Jesuit university in San Salvador at which six Jesuit scholars and two women were killed by government forces in 1989. The six Jesuit priests, including the liberation theologians Ignacio Ellacuría and Ignacio Martín-Baró, were dragged from their beds late at night and shot on the lawn outside their small cinder block house. The bodies were left for the university community to discover. We viewed albums containing very graphic and copious photographs of the desecration; these albums that have been placed in El Museo de Los Martiros at La UCA so that people will not forget what happened.

I just started reading some of the theological writings of Ellacuría after the visit, and I can see how his ideas would be considered very provocative by a government intent upon suppressing the protests of the poor and those who advocate for them. But the other provocation was the active part these Jesuit priests and other church members took in advancing the causes of justice and peace and equality in El Salvador. They planted crops, distributed food, transported people to polls, sought health care, led worship even where and when it was prohibited.

We saw the same work happening today in the ongoing work of the Episcopal Church in El Salvador. On our last day, we were able to hear the story of a priest who came from Spain decades ago and lived through the civil war in El Salvador. He himself was imprisoned simply for distributing food from church grounds to the poor. And perhaps for one other thing. He told us that he also considered it important to teach the poor why they are poor.

In El Salvador’s church workers, it seems true that “the truth that one proclaims” and “the work that one performs” are one and the same. When I get ordained on June 16, the words of the contemporary hymn I selected will include these: “Keep us from just singing, move us into action. We must go!”

May that be true for all of us who want to serve God. ¡Vamos!

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