A robe dipped in blood

Mennonite pastor Nelson Kraybill originally published the following reflection on his blog, Holy Land Peace-Pilgrim, after a trip to El Salvador in October. He has graciously agreed to share his reflection with Bearing Witness.

 This week an unscheduled airline layover in Central America gave me a day to explore sites related to the life and death of Archbishop Oscar Romero. I saw a robe dipped in blood—vestments worn by Romero when he was assassinated in 1980 for daring to confront abuses of a right-wing dictatorship in El Salvador.

Today a life-size statue of Archbishop Romero stands at the spot where he delivered his last homily in the chapel of Divina Providencia hospital. When he finished speaking, he stepped to the altar in the background and died from a bullet fired from the rear of the building.

The nation was in civil war, its military government aligned with the rich. Romero used sermons and radio messages to denounce death squads and other means of intimidating the poor. On March 24, 1980 he said this at the Divina Providencia hospital chapel in San Salvador:

I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. . . In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.

As Romero stepped to the altar to celebrate Eucharist, an assassin’s bullet cut him down. When I visited Romero’s nearby humble house this week, a nun showed me his vestments still stained with blood.

Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True . . .    He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron . . .                        Revelation 19:11–15

Romero confronted powers of oppression and violence with nothing but the “sword” of the Word of God. He charged into spiritual and political battle with inspired words and changed the course of Salvadoran history, helping end dictatorship and war.

Alexander the Great charges into battle against King Darius of Persia in the fourth century BC. This mosaic found at Pompeii is at the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

A mosaic from Pompeii (ca. 100 BC) shows Alexander the Great also charging into battle—in this case against the Persians. But Alexander has a literal sword in hand, and he intends to kill. Roman emperors in the first century routinely put similar images of themselves on coins.

Such Greek and Roman military propaganda–and Old Testament precedents–stand behind Revelation 19. But John of Patmos completely transforms the imagery! An equestrian Christ in John’s vision wears garments splattered with blood—his own blood shed at Calvary. Like Romero two millennia later, Jesus confronted powers of death and violence with the Word of God—not physical violence—and laid down his life in love.

Never underestimate the power of the spoken Word of God to bring down oppressive powers and point the way to healing of the nations.

© 2014 J. Nelson Kraybill

A robe dipped in blood” originally appeared on October 10, 2014 on Nelson Kraybill’s blog, Holy Land Peace-Pilgrim.

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