It's spring cleaning time, and I committed to cleaning my office space for real this year. Among the scraps of paper that I gathered up for recycling, I found one with this quotation from Archbishop Oscar Romero:
A Gospel that doesn't unsettle,
a Word of God that doesn't get
under anyone's skin,
a Word of God that doesn't touch
the real sin of the society in which
it is being proclaimed,
what Gospel is that?
Even as I recycle that scrap of paper, I'm grateful to be reminded of the words. I kept that quotation on my desktop pictures during my pastorate at Metropolitan Community Church Boston. Before the ministry, in my days as an aerospace engineer, I kept a Robert Lentz icon of Archbishop Romero at my desk, one that now hangs in my home office.
The Lentz icon of Romero is disturbing. The Archbishop holds the pose of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, with a brown-skinned child Jesus in his arms. The child's sandal is dangling from his foot, suggesting that he has run to his Mama/Papa for solace from a frightening vision. In this icon, however, the frightening vision is not angels who hold the instruments of Jesus' torture and execution, but rather American helicopters raining bullets and bombs on the burning homes of El Salvador. I remember that those helicopters were called "gunships." At the time, my company was in the business of rather more terrestrial "gunships," light armored vehicles with GPS-aided gun turrets. Through the eyes of the icon, the Holy One implored me to take pity on the innocents who would be at the mercy of those guns.
For some reason, I had also saved a photograph from the National Catholic Reporter, framed it and displayed it next to Romero. It simply showed the charred head and shoulders of an Iraqi soldier, caught in death as he had attempted to emerge from an equally charred tank. It is a ghastly picture. I think that I was challenging myself to simply look at it from time to time; to view the suffering that was the end result of our military hardware, and not turn away.
What Gospel, indeed, do contemporary American churches proclaim?
Jesus did not come preaching prosperity, or commanding sexual purity, or enforcing gender hierarchies. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, raised the dead, and hung out with anyone who would welcome him. The Jesus of Matthew's Gospel began the last week of his life riding into Jerusalem, on a borrowed donkey, and followed up by overturning all of the concession stands in the Temple. Through that last week, he only directed holy anger at two groups of people: those who profited at the expense of the poor, and those who used religious power to make it harder for others to find God. He didn't play nice with the folks who ran Jerusalem; he unsettled them, got under their skin. Now that is a God I respect.
Jesus has not called Christians into polite piety, with unending praises of his goodness to us. Neither has he called us to uncritical patriotism, blind to the effects of empire on the people of other nations. He has called us to radical mercy, and that includes the practical matters of life here and now. Are we willing to follow him?
Are we ready to be unsettled?