David L. Balch, PLTS Chapel, Oct. 3, 2012
- “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all….” (Mk 9.35)
(The lectionary texts in Numbers 11 and in Mark 9 both concern leadership of the people of God. This is clearer if I begin reading at Mk 9:33, instead of in Mk. 9.38. So I read….)
The sermon today has the traditional three parts. The first has exegetical comments on our gospel text; the second and third are stories that I heard last spring in Argentina and El Salvador. So the exegetical part first:
A. Mark wrote the first half of the gospel emphasizing a powerful, Jesus in the Galilean north, and a second half narrating Jesus suffering and death on a cross in southern Judea. A transitional section binds the two halves together. Following the first half narrating Jesus’ success, the disciples refuse to accept that Jesus will suffer and die at the hands of the Romans, even though Jesus insists on it three times. A similar literary pattern shapes each of these three passion predictions.1 In our lectionary text for today, first, there is an affirmation about Jesus, who has been transfigured on the mountain. A voice from a cloud says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (9.7). Second Jesus repeats the passion prediction: “… they will kill him and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (9.31) Next, the disciples once again fail to understand. Finally, Jesus renews the call to his disciples and instructs them. The gospel lectionary text today is this fourth element: Jesus’ renewed instruction to uncomprehending disciples, who will become the church’s leaders.
Jesus’ transitional journey from north to south becomes a clash of values a) between Jesus who teaches what God wills for people and b) the disciples, who exemplify what we want for ourselves. The teachings that follow Jesus’ three passion predictions on the way to Jerusalem are the core standards of Mark’s gospel, 2 the core standards of the first gospel ever written! After the second prophecy of the passion, we read the gospel text for today: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9.35). Each of these teachings involves a contrast between acquiring, saving our own lives, and on the other hand, relinquishing, losing our lives for the good news. The world’s standards suggest acquiring wealth and power for our selves, a way of life motivated by anxiety and fear. Those who follow Jesus relinquish life and power to bring the blessings of the kingdom of God to others. During my time in South America last spring, I saw both forms of church leadership up close. So the two stories: one of Argentina, the other of El Salvador.
B. Argentina is a beautiful country. I traveled there last January with my son, Justin. He loves to go hiking, so he planned weekends that I really enjoyed. Here Justin is above Bariloche, which in another part of the year is a ski resort. (figs. 1-3) These are only the foothills of the Andes mountains, but they are still snow capped, which results in amazingly beautiful lakes below.
Substantial numbers of Europeans, including Germans and Italians, have immigrated to Argentina. The Italian influence is apparent in that everyone kisses everyone else, family, friends, and strangers. When meeting someone, the first thing they do, male or female, is kiss you, rather pleasant! The Italian influence also means that there is great art in Argentina. These tree sculptures in San Rafael of a person in prayer are an example, wooden sculptures out of tree trunks! (figs. 4-5) And this tree sculpture visually represents the Madonna and child (figs. 6-7).
One year ago many of you met an Argentine friend of mine, Nancy Bedford, Professor of theology at Garrett Theological Seminary. She was a Founders’ Day lecturer, as was Dr. Carter one week ago. I met some of Nancy’s family in Argentina, including her sister, Nelda.
When getting into a foreign culture and learning a foreign language, in this case Spanish, one of my primary questions is, Who are the best authors to read? A great author I found is Professor Rubén Dri, the source of what I am about to say. 3 In the years when my friend Nancy Bedford was a child, in March of 1976, there was a military coup d’etat in Argentina led by General Jorge Rafael Videla (1976-1981). What Dri writes about Videla’s dictatorship is horrifying. A public prosecutor, Julio Strassera, has documented 9,000 cases of “disappeared” persons, mostly young people who were seized by death squads or the military and never heard from again. Dri and others assert that the actual number of murdered persons was closer to 30,000, who were tortured, given electric shocks, immersed in water and suffocated, or many of them, taken by air and thrown to their deaths in the Pacific Ocean. A generation of Argentine youth was thrown into the ocean!
This was the era of the Cold War between West and East, between capitalists and communists, between the United States and the Soviet Union. When someone was disappeared and tortured in Argentina, the object was to get the name of their friends who might also sympathize with the communists. Young persons like my friend Nancy lived in fear that someone under torture would give their names, and they too would be “disappeared.” Nancy’s sister Nelda told me that, thirty plus years later, even when there is a problem, she never calls the police; she is still afraid.
Rubén Dri writes that the church authorities were silent; search for a prophet gives negative results (Dri, dictadura 37). Dri quotes Roberto Viola, Commander of the Argentine Army, observing that although it does not actively participate in the struggle, the church accepts the basic principles. (Dri, dictadura 45) Not a single Argentine bishop opposed this holocaust; they rather compared the state to an organism with germs (Dri, dictadura 46, 106), which justified violence against its opponents, that is, against the country’s own youth. While this holocaust of 30,000 of their own youth occurred, the bishops discoursed on the ethical problems of abortion and divorce (Dri, dictadura 60, 82).
Daniel Keegan, rector of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires, the capital city, gave a sermon in May, 1980, not long after Archbishop Romero’s assassination in El Salvador, in which he proclaimed Christ as victorious. The church authorities, he preached, and the armed forces that defend the nation are devoted to Christ the King of history (Dri, dictadura 97-98, 167)
I studied Spanish in four different institutes in four different cities in Argentina. I remember only one teacher whose husband was Christian. Another of my teachers, a German woman whose mother is a Catholic in Bavaria, expressed it this way: “the Christian church is the worst of the religions.” Leaders of the church in Argentina supported the dictator, who was disappearing the country’s youth as “communists,” and a visible result today is that many in the country no longer believe in the God proclaimed by the church. Dri asserts that the church cannot operate with a God of death in the present and expect belief when we proclaim a God of resurrection for the future.4
C. El Salvador & Romero After that story of failed church leadership in Argentina, let me turn for relief and inspiration to Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Catholic bishops of El Salvador. Less than a year after the military coup d’etat in Argentina, in Feb., 1977, Romero took over as Archbishop of San Salvador in a simple ceremony; the government was not asked to be present. (figs. 8-10) Less than a month later, the Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande and 2 companions were assassinated on their way to celebrate mass in the village of El Paisnal, where Fr. Grande had been born and was a parish priest. Two weeks ago Carol Jacobson at the beginning of her sermon showed us an image of Father Grande. For Romero the assassination of Fr. Grande was the crucial moment in his own conversion; the road from Aguilares was to be Romero’s road to Damascus. 5 There he began his way of the cross. “These days I have to walk the roads gathering up dead friends, listening to widows and orphans, and trying to spread hope.” (VoV 6) (fig. 11: Mariella Garcia Villas, Commission for Human Rights, disappeared 14 March 1983)
The Jesuit Jon Sobrino writes about his friend, Romero: “The first thing I want to say of Archbishop Romero … is that he had a profound faith in God…. He believed in God as did Jesus. …. Like Jesus he sought and found God’s will as much in the minutiae of everyday life as in life’s most profound and significant moments.” (VoV 23)
Our lectionary text today is Mark 9, which opens with Jesus’ transfiguration. Archbishop Romero issued 4 Pastoral Letters; 3 of the 4 he issued on the Feast of Transfiguration (1977, 1978, and 1979). In the fourth pastoral letter, issued only a few months before he was assassinated, he declares that “an interior conversion would be pointless were there not at the same time, as [the Latin American bishops meeting at] Puebla [Mexico] teach, a radical conversion to justice and love….” (VoV 126) Sections of this fourth Pastoral letter “unmask the idolatries of our society,” with “the absolutization of wealth and private property,” (VoV 133), and Romero asserts “the need for profound structural change.” (VoV 138)
The University of Georgetown invested Romero with a doctor of humanities, honoris causa, in the Cathedral of San Salvador (Feb 1978; VoV 162), an occasion diametrically opposed to the sermon of Daniel Keegan in the cathedral in Buenos Aires two years later. Romero spoke of the collaboration of the church in the process of liberation (VoV 170), and of prophetic denunciation (VoV 172).
Only days before he was assassinated, Romero was invested with another doctorate, honoris causa, by the University of Louvain, Belgium (Feb 1980; VoV 177). He spoke of Incarnation in the world of the poor (VoV 179), and in conclusion he said words that I emphasize for present and future pastors: “the relationship between faith and politics has not been discovered by purely theoretical reflection…. Rather it is in the actual practice of service to the poor that the political dimension of the faith is to be found.” (VoV 184) The final sentence in Romero’s Louvain address is: “I believe that by putting ourselves alongside the poor and trying to bring life to them, we shall come to know the eternal truth of the gospel.” (VoV 187)
Astounding to me, after Romero gathered up the bodies of so many dead friends, he was still able to proclaim forgiveness. I quote again from Romero: “I repeat again what I have said here so often … those who perhaps have caused so many injustices and acts of violence, those who have brought tears to so many homes, those who have stained themselves with the blood of so many murders, those who have hands soiled with tortures …. To all of them I say: No matter your crimes. They are ugly and horrible, and you have abased the highest dignity of a human person, but God calls you and forgives you.”6
Romero was assassinated in Feb., 1980 in this hospital chapel (figs. 12-15). Nine years later six Jesuit friends of his were assassinated on the campus of the Catholic University in San Salvador (figs. 16-19).
You will not be surprised that there is significant theological debate about the relation between faith and politics that Romero and others proclaimed. The present Dean of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Wartburg, Craig Nessan, wrote his doctoral dissertation on this topic, under the title ORTHOPRAXIS OR HERESY: The North American Theological Response to Latin American Liberation Theology (1989),7 in which he defends liberation theology against the questions raised by Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, and Carl Braaten. Dean Craig Nessan’s book is exciting reading that I highly recommend.
I add my own teacher’s response, Ernst Käsemann. I listened to Käsemann in Germany in 1968-70; from him I learned how to be an exegete and how to do theology. Without Käsemann, today I would be neither a professor nor a Lutheran. He was one of the most influential Lutheran interpreters of the New Testament in the 20th century. When I studied with him, he was an existentialist debating an auditorium of several hundred West German students, many of whom were Marxist. I did not realize at the time that he was also debating his daughter, Elizabeth, who later traveled to Argentina to join the resistance to the dictator Videla, and who then became one of the 30,000 disappeared. In Argentina this past spring, I learned that Elizabeth Käsemann had lived and studied at ISEDET, the same seminary in Buenos Aires where I was studying. After his daughter went to join other Christian prophets living with and supporting the poor in Argentina, and after she was murdered, in his grief her father changed. You must know that Käsemann never put his theological theses neutrally, but polemically, very sharply stated, zugespitzt he liked to say. In an essay on what he had unlearned in 50 years as a theologian, he wrote, “I unlearned spiritualizing the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, which promise the kingdom of God, freeing us not only from our egotism, but also from the tyranny of the enslaving powers. I am no longer content with the Augsburg Confession in which the visible church is recognized by the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments, but also by the presence of the poor, with which Jesus ends his blessing in Matt 11:5-6, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”8
The economic/political struggles in Argentina and El Salvador are not the last such upheavals we will see. Many of those who have wealth will use any means to preserve their advantages, as did so-called Christian politicians in Argentina and El Salvador. Today Greece threatens to go bankrupt; Europeans are nervous about the economies of Italy and Spain. I am not a prophet, but there will be more economic upheavals. Where will we stand as church leaders, with “the least” of all as did Archbishop Romero, or with the powerful, as did the bishops of Argentina?
In the twentieth century capitalism captured Christianity. For even raising a question about private property belonging to the quatorze familia, the fourteen (rich) families of El Salvador, while hundreds of thousands starved, meant that Romero was called a communist, and the USA, Presidents Reagan and Carter, sent millions of dollars to bomb the poor peasants to hell.
Annual church assemblies of Lutheran and Reformed churches in Latin America have passed 27 official church resolutions calling for dialogue with us over North American policies that produce unemployment, poverty, and death in Latin America. They have translated their official resolutions into English for us, and published them in this book, Life in all Fullness: Latin American Protestant Churches Facing Neoliberal Globalization (2007). 9 Do we dare listen to our Southern, Lutheran Latino/a brothers and sisters, to the poor and “least” among us? Shall we listen to them and take up this dialogue? Will we so-called white persons engage with the million Salvadoran immigrants in California? Or has capitalism so captured us and our theology that we cannot hear that Jesus preached the gospel to the poor?
Rubén Dri, La hegemonía de los cruzados: La iglesia católica y la dictadura militar (Buenos Aires: Biblos, 2011). Dri is a theologian and philosopher who holds a Chair in the Sociology of Religion at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Louis N. Rivera-Pagán, “For Times Such as This. Oscar Romero: Bishop, Prophet, and Martyr,” pp. 89-110 in Essays from the Diaspora (Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, 2002), 104 (September 24, 1978).
- M. Eugene Boring, Mark: a Commentary (NT Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 231.
- David Rhoads, “Losing Life for Others in the Face of Death: Marks’ Standards of Judgment,” 44-62 in Reading Mark: Engaging the Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004), 45.
- Rubén Dri, La hegemonía de los cruzados: La iglesia católica y la dictadura militar (Buenos Aires: Biblos, 2011). Dri is a theologian and philosopher who holds a Chair in the Sociology of Religion at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
- Rubén Dri, La Utopía de Jesús (Buenos Aires: Biblos, 1997, 2000, 2011), 208-09.
- Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985), 6, introductory essay by Ignacío Martín-Baró, abbreviated as VoV.
- Louis N. Rivera-Pagán, “For Times Such as This. Oscar Romero: Bishop, Prophet, and Martyr,” pp. 89-110 in Essays from the Diaspora (Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, 2002), 104 (September 24, 1978).
- Craig L. Nessan, Orthopraxis or Heresy: The North American Theological Response to Latin American Liberation Theology (AAR/AS 63; Atlanta: Scholars, 1989).
- Ernst Käsemann, “Was ich as deutsher Theologe in fünfzig Jahren verlernte,” 233-44 in Kirchliche Konflikte, Band 1 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ru8precht, 1982), 243.
- René Krüger, ed., Life in all Fullness: Latin American Protestant Churches Facing Neoliberal Globalization (Buenos Aires: ISEDET, 2007).