Liberation theologians have acknowledged their debt to Monseñor Oscar Romero, and particularly with respect to the seriousness with which he took his Christian faith. Ignacio Ellacuría, a Jesuit theologian working in El Salvador who was murdered in 1989, mentions three specific things he learned from the way Romero lived out his Christian faith: (i) how to “historicize” the gospel (ii) the need for the oppressed to become the “guiding center” of praxis, and (iii) the need for “Christian transcendence.” These three commitments Ellacuría learned from Romero—historicization, the oppressed as guiding center, and Christian transcendence—are all present in Romero’s understanding of incarnation, which he put forth in his address in Leuven shortly before he was killed. Whereas Romero presented incarnation as a call for the church in this speech, Ellacuría subsequently indicates how this call challenges the theologian. This challenge remains important today.
Romero took Christian faith claims seriously by historicizing them: “to flesh out those beautiful declarations from the standpoint of my own situation,” as Romero declared in Leuven. He understood incarnation as an existential situation of being affected by the world of the poor, as a movement of taking “the world of the poor upon ourselves.” Romero discovered a concrete reality that had always existed yet by which he did not initially allow himself to be confronted. Through the process of historicization, he allowed this historical situation to define faith realities. Ellacuría describes Romero as “fully realizing” his ecclesial function in this movement into the world of the poor. With Ellacuría, I see Romero to challenge theologians to more fully realize what it means to do theology through this process of historicization. This requires using (theological) concepts that emerge out of the concrete encounters with realities of oppression and struggles for liberation—that is, it requires thinking divinity from the materiality of reality.
Ellacuría describes Romero’s conversion in his mission to be the result of how he historicized the Gospel; his conversion did not come out of primarily theoretical considerations. In this sense, the oppressed prompt and guide Christian theological concepts and historical praxis. In Leuven, Romero insisted that the world of the poor—and by this I understand him to refer not only to the objective reality of the world of the poor but also to the ways the oppressed have made sense of their reality—teach the church what Christian love, liberation, and hope in fact entail. In Romero’s claims about the church, I find a challenge to the theologian to allow for radical receptivity in theological discourse from the oppressed, and even more, to allow theological discourse to be shaped by the perspectives and concerns of those oppressed by social structures, and by their struggles for liberation.
For me, articulating the need for an understanding of transcendence akin to Romero’s is the trickiest dimension of Romero’s thought that Ellacuría pulls out because of recent critiques of transcendence within theology that I think make valid points (e.g., those from Catherine Keller, Mayra Rivera, and Laurel Schneider). Yet, the claim Romero makes for Christian transcendence in his Leuven address, which refers to the priority of the Christian faith and a transcendent God, issues a necessary caution to such theologies. Romero describes his understanding of incarnation as relying on the priority of the Christian faith and a transcendent God, but a Christian faith and a God whose transcendence are only revealed in history, and particularly in historical processes of the oppressed initiating their liberation. Incarnation for Romero is not, at least in the first instance, universal; it is “preferential and partial.” It is only from the perspective of the world of the poor that “the church will become a church for everybody.” Romero’s understanding of transcendence doesn’t imply a positivistic understanding of revelation that stands apart from the world; there is a necessary receptivity in the Christian faith and in divinity. This receptivity is not receptivity in the abstract sense, a receptivity as such, but a particular form of receptivity: receptivity from the world of the poor. Romero maintains the transcendence of the church by basing its praxis in its faith in a God who self-revealed as for the oppressed, even as he urges that transcendence be given meaning by the marginalized. Romero ends his address with this interplay: “From the perspective of the transcendence of the gospel, I believe we can determine what the life of the poor truly is. And I also 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.” The gospel, in other words, is given priority, yet the content of the gospel is only worked out within historical, material encounters—that is, through the process of historicization.
The three dimensions Ellacuría finds so crucial in Romero’s work—historicization, the oppressed as guiding center, and Christian transcendence—indicate the radical nature of Romero’s understanding of incarnation. Romero took his Christian faith seriously by holding to an ultimate orientation within reality shaped by the revelational claim of divinity incarnated in the world of the oppressed. This faith claim based on revelation calls for a receptivity in revelation itself from the perspective of the world of the poor. It places a demand on the (liberation) theologian to hold to an ultimate orientation not necessarily discernible through philosophical reflection, and also entails a rejection of naïve claims of “real” liberation and “true” personhood proclaimed from a dogmatic position not adequately touched by reality, and particularly the reality of the periphery. While the way that Romero understood and named the world of the poor has to be renewed, his call for incarnation that he articulated in Leuven remains as a challenge to the theologian.