Students going to El Salvador have been assigned a handful of books to read before the trip and after the trip, each requiring a brief written reaction piece. Here’s one of mine:
Witnesses to the Kingdom: Martyrs of El Salvador and the Crucified Peoples by Jon Sobrino
A figurehead of liberation theology, Jon Sobrino is a respected theologian who’s writing about those who have gone before him who engendered both his respect and represented something profound in their theology or what they represent theologically. He’s writing about martyrs.
Rather than tour through all of the stories Sobrino tells of martyrs, I want to address his writing style and philosophy because that is what intrigues me most as a writer. With all due respect to those who have died for a cause, all I can say about reading these stories is I was struck by how I’ve never even contemplated this sort of thing to be a part of my life. I don’t know anyone who has died for a cause and I don’t know what cause I believe strongly enough in to offer my life. I’ve heard it said many parents would die for their children though perhaps I need children in order to truly understand this idea. I’m still wrapping my head around the concept of martyrdom, even after reading the stories in Sobrino’s book, though something tells me it’s going to come up more than once on the trip. With that said, exploring why Sobrino’s writing style is so powerful definitely intrigues me and is inspirational in terms of my own desire to produce better writing.
Regarding Sobrino’s writing style, he’s made some specific choices that flow into each other. First, all of the stories are told from his perspective, how he perceived the people who died, how they lived, what they stood for and what they stand for now. This approach enables him to sprinkle the history with personal anecdotes of interacting with these past-away friends, as well as small tidbits of his own theology and philosophy. For example, in writing about the possibility that Archbishop Romero will one day be canonized, he pleads for the genuine Romero to be honored, not the idea of him. He ties this in with his theology on how love has worked throughout history, tying it to the notion of hope and ultimately, liberation. There is one small paragraph which has expressed liberation theology to me more clearly than anything I’ve read or heard about so far:
Hope against resignation. Nothing more fully expresses resurrection that the triumph of hope. “You killed him, but God raised him up,” Peter says in Acts. God did justice, not to a corpse, but to a victim. Thus is fulfilled the desire that “the murderer will not triumph over the victim.” (Sobrino, 153)
With a simple idea, scriptural reference, and brief interpretation, Sobrino has encapsulated why these deaths stand for the deaths of many, why the hope of the oppressed is to rise up without being forgotten or denied. It’s an inspiring way to look at the nature of God.
The other aspect of Sobrino’s writing style comes from a short portion of the book in which he expounds upon his writing philosophy. Like a concerned citizen holding a letter to the editor for a day before sending it off, Sobrino explains how he’s held off on writing about these martyrs, particularly his six “martyred brothers.” He had often been asked to write immediate reflections upon tragedies, from the assassination of Romero to the murder or Rutilio Grande, and so on. He writes, however, of how distance can lend weight to the writing overall:
“…In some way or another, we who survived managed to transform these feelings [of sorrow and indignation] quite quickly into hope and service… Now, some time later, as I am gradually feeling calmer, I am setting out to write these reflections. I do it in grateful homage… to my six martyred brothers.” (58-59)
The distance Sobrino has granted the situation is what makes his writing so poignant today. It goes back to the aforementioned idea of canonizing Romero for the genuine person he was rather than the idea of him. Living a life without these people there, physically doing work side by side with him, has given Sobrino the wisdom to understand the full impact of their murders and this profound insight is one I respect as a writer of both nonfiction and fiction with a nonfiction basis.
Finally, a note on the notion of “martyr” overall. “Martyr” is a word I’ve heard tossed around in affluent US society when referring to someone who makes a big deal out of some personal sacrifice they made and want credit for it. Thing is, the big deal is seldom that big and the sacrifice is certainly not on the level Sobrino is writing about. In a way, I’ve always seen affluent use of “martyr” as one with satirical connotations and when used smartly it could have some depth behind it. However, I’ve also heard it overused and undervalued and in that regard the word can lose its power. Sobrino’s book recharges the word with the depth it deserves as he examines the people who gave their lives.
This required reading has particular weight for our class. UTS is running a course dedicated to Sobrino this spring and a handful of students in that class are also attending the El Salvador trip. After the trip, I’ll post my reaction to Sobrino’s book on Archbishop Romero, aptly titled, Archbishop Romero. And, with any luck, our group is hoping that a chance to hear Jon Sobrino speak turns out to be part of our itinerary.