Sunday, March 27, 2011

The making of saints

This woman displays a six year old paper poster honoring the Salvadoran bishop, Monsignor Oscar Romero, while walking in a Mission district procession highlighting the plight of immigrants yesterday. Obviously the figure of the bishop, martyred by right wing death squads in 1980, is very meaningful to her.
Yesterday we attended a bilingual, interfaith religious service held at Mission Dolores marking the killing of Bishop Romero thirty one years ago. The organizers were advocates for a just US immigration policy. As is the nature of such events, where many traditions must be given their moment, it was a little long, a little disjointed, and occasionally very moving. The most poignant moment was the lighting of candles to the memory of a litany of Central American and Mexican martyrs.
When you think about it, this memorial is slightly incongruous. All these people (except Bishop Ruiz, but his long life was lived in the same hard terrain) were killed for their devotion to the needs and dignity of very poor people. Their choice to live for the poor put them in the crosshairs of rich oligarchs who lived off their oppressed populations. But all of them also, would have named the systematic greed, the structural exploitation, that emanates from us, from the hypocritical national colossus to the north, as the enforcer of their local elites' crimes.

During the martyrs' lives, the United States was feeding off the blood of peoples to the south. Yet today their memory and martyrdoms are invoked by people from Central America and Mexico in their quest to stay in the United States, in the belly of the beast, in the context of a stupid and heartless immigration system. Enabling people to move to the United States and become "Americans" was absolutely not what these martyrs were about.

And yet, their lives and deaths in devotion to unspeakable truths make them figures with power for people who need any hope they can get. The historical specificity of their witness becomes blurred amid the needs of today. For those who remember the history, this can be distressing. The United States still has its boot on the neck of poor Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Mexicans.

But the people are making the saints they need. Plasticity, the capacity to take many shapes, is perhaps a feature of sainthood. The Vatican sanctification process (which may have some difficulty digesting Archbishop Romero) is one avenue to sainthood. But in all times, people find their own figures to represent higher truths in a heartless landscape.

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