A classics teacher I have never met blew my mind today. I was meandering around on the internet, and a few clicks into a mindless browse, I came across a teacher’s musings, where he asked, “how can I get students to love dead languages?” On its face, it’s a simple question. It’s what most teachers strive for. But I have never framed my pedagogy this way. How can I get a student to love theology?
I am showing the movie Romero in my classes next week. Whenever I show this movie, I have to check myself a little bit, because it is a movie that I really value personally; now that I look back, I can see that the first time I watched was one of my steps towards understanding and loving liberation theology. So I have to remind myself that not everyone is going to have a LIFE CHANGING EXPERIENCE while watching this movie in my classroom. But the question above is the perfect way to reframe the issue. How can I get a student to love Oscar Romero?
In case you’re not familiar with Romero, let me give a little bit of background. Oscar Romero was a priest in El Salvador in the 1970s, at the outset of the brutal Salvadoran Civil War. As a minister, he initially opposed any kind of Church intervention in politics, explaining that his call was to serve his people’s spiritual needs and not to organize a revolution. He felt that his fellow priests were misguided in their attempts to change the social order (like poverty or disenfranchisement) because it resulted in sympathizing with or embracing socialism/Marxism. Because of this “non-involvement” stance, he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, a strategic move for the Church who, at the time, was desperate to stem the tide of communism in South America. But soon after his appointment Romero’s close friend Fr. Rutilio Grande was assassinated simply for urging his parish to organize against the conservative government and vote in democratic elections. Inspired by his friend’s life and death, he began to understand the central concept of liberation theology—it is not enough just to serve a person’s spiritual needs if her/his physical needs are not being met. He began to see that in order to serve God and his people, in the context of 1970s El Salvador, he had to care about the political situation, because Salvadorans were being kidnapped, tortured, raped, murdered, and oppressed by their own government. Through his position as archbishop, he began to speak out against this oppression and came to embody a true Christian solidarity by struggling alongside of the poor and oppressed of El Salvador. This solidarity and opposition to oppression took him all the way to his death. He was assassinated in 1980 while saying mass.
I first learned about Oscar Romero in my religion class junior year of high school; we watched Romero and I was changed. After learning about what Romero did and what El Salvador went through, I couldn’t think about anything in the same way anymore. The movie got under my skin like a splinter, making me rethink how I thought about justice and what commitment I had made with my life towards living a life of Christian solidarity.
So how did I grow to love Oscar? Well what I loved learning about him was that he changed his mind. He wasn’t born a martyr. His conversion from “non-involvement” to fearless solidarity is what I find both heroic and understandable—Romero lived in a terrible situation and reevaluated what he believed in the pursuit of being a better Christian. He wasn’t perfect, of course, but his life serves as a model of holiness. He faced real “persecution for righteousness sake” and his fearlessness and commitment to justice are inspiring.
If I had to answer the above question, I would say that I get students to love something by showing them why I love it. I can show them why I love Oscar Romero, and I think that will go a long way for some students, particularly students who already like theology or are engaged in my class. But what keeps me up at night is how to reach the student who doesn’t perceive any commonality between me and her, who refuses to even try to see why what I have to teach her might be cool. How can I get her to love Oscar Romero?