Very few of us are called to be martyrs. But we all have a role to play in the Kingdom of God.
A Reflection for Thursday of the Thirty-second Week in Ordinary Time
Find today’s readings here.
Asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come,
Jesus said in reply,
“The coming of the Kingdom of God cannot be observed,
and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’
For behold, the Kingdom of God is among you.”
Today is 34 years to the day since Salvadoran Army soldiers murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in San Salvador on Nov. 16, 1989. The murders alarmed the outside world and shone a new light on a decade of human rights atrocities committed by the Salvadoran military. The resulting outcry ultimately led to a cessation of military aid from the United States and, one could argue, brought new impetus to the peace process in a country torn by civil war and ruled by an oppressive government. At the time, however, the savagery of the act simply shocked all those who heard or read about it—I can still clearly remember a Jesuit priest at my high school coming on the intercom the next morning to announce the atrocity.
I had the privilege to visit the Jesuit residence at the University of Central America in San Salvador—where the Jesuits and Celia and Elba Ramos were murdered—in 2015 while covering the beatification of St. Oscar Romero for America. The garden where they were executed is now planted with roses. A nearby study center offers binders and binders full of news clippings, pictures and other evidence not only of the crime, but of the campaign of hatred toward the priests that led up to it.
The Jesuits were targeted not just because they were public intellectuals or were suspected of rebel sympathies, but because much of their academic and theological writing was linking the message of the Gospel to the people’s struggle for liberation in El Salvador and elsewhere. For a government used to Catholic priests who often taught of a future heavenly reward rather than justice in life, the message of their scripturally inflected theology—that the Kingdom of God is among you now, and it belongs first and foremost to the poor—was indeed subversive to a hegemonic regime that survived on economic exploitation. “Always remember that there is no conversion to God,” wrote one of the martyred priests, Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J., “if there is no conversion to the oppressed.”
A martyr is an integral part of that Kingdom, but so are you and I.
“The coming of the Kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the Kingdom of God is among you.” Those words of Jesus are at the heart of what the UCA Jesuits—and the many other martyrs of El Salvador—were proclaiming in their writings and their actions. But they are also a reminder: The Kingdom of God is not something to be augured via signs or the fulfillment of prophecies.
What does that mean for us today, though? A world wracked by war, oppression and economic injustice, still living under the threat of nuclear annihilation and seemingly careening toward environmental catastrophe hardly feels like one in which the Kingdom of God can already be found. One temptation is obviously to find that kingdom in secular rulers and politicians—I had a retreat director suggest to me once that the famous “Call of the King” meditation from St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises might make more sense if I thought of the King as Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president. Another temptation can be to assume that the Kingdom can be found in a pure and perfect church, but we all know how well that works out.
But maybe we are not called to seek signs of where, exactly, this Kingdom of God is to be found. Jesus tells us it can’t be observed. Maybe we instead are being called to action on its behalf, to seek its fulfillment even when the evidence for the shalom it promises seems far, far away. Whatever action one takes—from the most strenuous campaign for justice to the smallest sincere prayer to the simplest act of kindness or care—builds up that Kingdom a little more. A martyr is an integral part of that Kingdom, but so are you and I.
Very few of us are called to be martyrs. But all of us have a role to play in the Kingdom of God.