Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Romero, Reagan, and Refugees

Today I have Archbishop Oscar Romero on my mind.  In part, it's because today is the 35th anniversary of his assassination.  In part it's because the economic injustice that he preached against seems ever more pervasive today.

When I was in college in the 1980's first learning about Central American politics, it seemed bizarre to me that so few members of a population could control so much of the country's wealth.  And now it seems that we've seen that situation take over the world.

I'm thinking about U.S. interventions throughout Latin America and the world.  I'm wondering if there's a way to intervene without making the situation worse. 

I'm thinking of all the Central American refugees of the 1980's, many of whom are still here in the U.S., some legally, some not.  I'm thinking of my first years teaching in South Florida and realizing how many of my students were here because of the Central American strife of my college years.  In my college years, I would not have been able to imagine how all our paths would cross.

I've had many encounters with refugees on the run from repression, which makes it hard for me to demonize all the people who are here illegally.  When we discuss proposals to make it easier for people here illegally to come out of the shadows and gain citizenship, the actions of the U.S. government through the years are never far from my mind.

I'm also thinking about Liberation Theology, a movement that many see as closely linked with Romero. In the midst of the geo-political arguments of the 1980's, where Ronald Reagan warned of Communists coming across the Texas border, I also got my first hearing/reading of liberation theology, a pattern of thought that would change my life. Liberation Theology introduced me to a radical Jesus, a Jesus who demanded justice for the poor and the oppressed, a Jesus who was crucified not because of my individual sin but because he challenged the Roman power structure. This Jesus was not one I had met in the suburban, Southern churches of my youth.

Those of us who have a vision of social justice must remember that the world is not set up to reward those of us who call for a more just world. Sure, some of us may get acclaim, but the world tends to reward social justice visionaries with jail or martyrdom. But the vision is important, and it's vital that we demand it. Think of how different the world would be if people like Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Romero, Martin Luther King, the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic--if these people had just sat idly by and said, "Well, I have my nice comfortable life. I'm not going to look out for the poor and the oppressed. Let them help themselves."

In later years, graduate students who want to write a dissertation about these influences in my work will have plenty of material from which to choose.  Here's a poem that came to me during the weeks following Ronald Reagan's death, those weeks where I found myself thinking, are we remembering the same president?  It was published in The South Carolina Review:

Lying in State

On the day that Ronald Reagan dies,
in the shadow of the Interstate, I offer
a homeless man a loaf of banana bread
which he grabs, as if afraid
I’ll rescind my offer.

Reagan’s body flies across the continent
to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda,
that branch of government which made policies
he tried to evade.
I report to work, teach English to the children
of families who fled Reagan’s foreign
policies, Cold War containment and interference.

On the day of Reagan’s funeral, I plant
a tree and remember his claim
that creatures of this leafy clan cause pollution.
I think of ICBMs fertilizing far away fields
and Adam dead of AIDS these twenty years,
his bones blending into the earth.

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