Church in the Image of the Cross

Ascending by GilbertCantu

Ascending by GilbertCantu

Because Jesus is fully human, the church is called to affirm humanity, reaching out in attentive, vulnerable love to the whole human family, but especially to those who are poor and hurting. In Christ’s identification with suffering humanity – with a humanity ground under the wheels of the powers and principalities – the church receives its own orientation as those who are called to be with and for the victims of this present age. Bonhoeffer writes, “Christians can and ought to act like Christ: they ought to bear the burdens and sufferings of the neighbor… It must come to the point that the weaknesses, needs, and sins of my neighbor afflict me as if they were my own, in the same way as Christ was afflicted by our sin.” That this bearing of burdens is not simply “religious talk” but refers to concrete action is made clear when Bonhoeffer notes: “The hungry person needs bread, the homeless person needs shelter, the one deprived of rights needs justice, the lonely person needs community, the undisciplined one needs order, and the slave needs freedom. It would be blasphemy against God and our neighbor to leave the hungry unfed while saying that God is closest to those in deepest need.” The bearing of the sins and burdens of others to which Jesus calls the church is nothing less than a concrete imitation of Jesus’s own life, a cruciform life, one that was fundamentally disruptive and that cannot be contained in the categories of religion.

…The church’s identification with those who suffer unveils the fact that the current age, in which the few are on top while the many suffer below, has met its end in Jesus Christ… Christians solidarity with the suffering is a search for Jesus who is hidden in their midst.

…Bonhoeffer is not merely interested in the church being in solidarity with the suffering, but calls the church to actively seek to eliminate the suffering of the poor through an ethics of responsibility with two practices of prophetic ministry: unceasing prayer and action for justice.

…The practices of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution are constitutive of [John] Perkins’s vision of the church. The church is that community marked by witness to the gospel, the whole gospel. The church’s most appropriate social location then is among the poor in the abandoned places of empire, a location that places the body of Christ in the ideal situation to witness to the whole gospel, which meets the whole needs of the whole person. The prophetic church, as Perkins’s envisions it, is a space in which all people, black and white, poor and rich, can gather and grow from an economy of grace.

Peter Goodwin Heltzel and Christian T. Collins Winn, “Religionless Ecclesiology and the Missional Church,” in Mobilizing for the Common Good: The Lived Theology of John M. Perkins, 108-122.

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The Vision of Oscar Romero: What Romero Says to CCDA and My Vision for Ministry [Part 6]

My vision for ministry has slowly come into focus over the past six or seven years. However, I hold the few pieces of vision I have been able to see very loosely because I want to remain open to God’s call and further clarification. My vision, as I currently see it, is to lead a Christian community development ministry in a rural town somewhere in the southeastern U.S. The notion of Christian community development was developed by John Perkins and focuses on meeting the felt needs of an underdeveloped community through a ministry of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution.[1] The vision of Oscar Romero coincides well with my vision of Christian community development, but it also challenges this vision in important ways.

Romero’s vision challenges me to ground myself within an established church tradition that provides a structure of support, authority, and teaching. As was seen throughout his ministry and his pastoral letters, Romero was a man of the church – the Roman Catholic Church. His vision cannot be separated from the Catholic Church’s vision set forth by the Second Vatican Council and the Medellin Conference. While he did face criticism and disunity within the church hierarchy, these struggles did not keep him from living out his vision. The idea of submitting to a church tradition creates tension with my congregation-based, Southern Baptist heritage. While I was involved with a United Methodist Church for a few years during college and came to admire the teachings of John Wesley, I was troubled by the UMC hierarchical system. However, in my study of Romero’s life, I have seen how even the most corrupt and resistant hierarchy can be a source of mutual support and encouragement. The key for Romero was in refusing to sacrifice his commitment to the Salvadoran people, especially the poorest among them, in order to protect or appease the hierarchy. Romero’s vision calls me to root myself deeply in a faith tradition that inspires me and complements my vision.

Romero’s vision also deeply challenges my view on suffering. Romero’s context for ministry was full of suffering – murders, kidnappings, and extreme poverty. As a leader of the Easter church, Romero was called to proclaim the hope of resurrection precisely in the most crucified places; he fully expected to suffer in the process. However, he did not simply take on the suffering of others as if the suffering itself was the goal. The suffering Romero expected would come in the form of persecution. Entering into crucified places and exposing the structures of sin would inevitably create a backlash from those who profit from these structures. This distinction between suffering experienced under the oppression of structural sin and the suffering of persecution which comes when those structures are confronted is extremely important, especially when considering how suffering can be said to be “redemptive.” As archbishop, Romero consistently denounced the sins of the Salvadoran government and military which caused extreme suffering. He saw no redemption in the murders, kidnapping, and oppression his people experienced under these structural sins. However, his ministry does reveal how the suffering caused by the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ can be redemptive. Suffering, in this case, may be redemptive but it is not the source or cause of the redemption. The work of redemption is a function of grace, and grace abounds in the very places where suffering due to sin is at its very worst. Suffering can be redemptive only when it opens a person to the redeeming grace of God in the life of a community proclaiming and working towards the hope of full liberation in the reign of God.

Romero never shrank back in the face of suffering. He listened to the people and shared in their sorrow and their grieving. He did not protect himself or attempt to love his people at a distance. Instead, he cherished the solidarity he was able to experience with those under his care. This aspect of Romero’s vision coincides very well with the idea of relocation in the scheme of Christian community development. Perkins describes relocation as “moving into a needy community so that its needs become our own needs.”[2] The goal of relocation is solidarity. As I enter into suffering communities and join in the struggle against the sin at work in those places, I can experience the unity, joy, and hope that come as a result of shared suffering.

Romero called the church to be a sign and instrument of Easter to a specific people at specific time in history. The life of the world and its mass of suffering was not to be overlooked in order to pursue a purely spiritual vocation. Again, this aspect of Romero’s vision coincides well with Perkins’ development model. The ministry of Christian community development begins with the felt needs of a community and partners with the community to meet those needs first. As relationships of trust are established, the deeper, spiritual needs of the community can be addressed.[3] However, Romero’s vision of being the body of Christ in history calls the ministry of Christian community development beyond merely providing solutions to needs – physical or spiritual. Romero’s vision insists on the formation of a faith community centered on the Word of God which operates in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Christian community development principle of reconciliation, defined as being reconciled to God and others through the love and forgiveness of the gospel across all boundaries,[4] points in this direction but does not go far enough. This reconciliation should not be ad hoc, but should be experienced within a worshiping, practicing faith community.

Romero’s vision of the Easter church calls for the proclamation of a gospel that brings good news for the whole person and the whole society. This gospel proclamation should lead to liberation from oppressive sinful structures and an empowerment for living in a restored, new creation life. Christian community development’s notion of redistribution provides the practical content of the liberating gospel proclamation Romero demands. Perkins describes redistribution as “[sharing] with those in need… a sharing of our skills, technology, and educational resources in a way that empowers people to break out of the cycle of poverty.”[5] While faithfully engaged in this work of redistribution, Romero would remind any Christian community development that the mission of the church is first towards God, and, because God has come to save us, the church should go out and boldly proclaim and embody this message of salvation.

As I conclude, it is vital to remember that Oscar Romero never saw his vision completed. However, this was not a problem for Romero because he knew his vision was God’s vision. God would complete the work; he only needed to be obedient to God. In recent times, a prayer has come to be associated with Oscar Romero, even though it has been shown that he did not author it.[6] In any case, it beautifully captures the humble trust in God’s greater work that Romero lived so faithfully. This prayer provides an appropriate conclusion to a paper on Romero’s vision:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.[7]


[1] John M. Perkins, Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 30-37.

[2] Perkins, 36.

[3] Perkins, 34.

[4] Perkins, 37.

[5] Perkins, 37.

[6] Scott Wright, Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 154.

[7] Wright, 153-154.