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Oscar Romero’s Martydom and Civic Engagement in Higher Ed

On March 24, 1980, then Archbishop Oscar Romero, a hero of the El Salvadorian people and a champion for Liberation Theology (Christian) was shot and killed after nearly three years of vocal dissent against the El Salvadorian army and government’s oppression of its people. Soldiers had been ordered to fire upon innocent civilians if needed and what became known as “death squads” roamed throughout much of the country. A day after speaking to a soldier about his need to come back to his core identity, thus walking away from these death squads and returning to a life of peace and justice, an organized assassination took place in a small parish while Romero was serving communion.

With the 35th anniversary of his death and assassination taking place this week, Romero’s impact remains heavy on the hearts of Catholics but also speaks volumes of what religious and spiritual identity can be on the college campus.

While much of religious practice has become an evangelism of conversion, Romero’s call for justice and compassion for those he surrounded himself with is exactly the kind of religion that benefits the college campus. In the bubble that is every higher education institution in the country, those religious groups and persons who emphasize a mutual concern for one another speak to the inherent possibilities when universities incorporate religious and spiritual identity into their diversity. Students learn from one another, they become engaged with each other, and see each other eye to eye. And there are more of these groups than one might think hanging around on campus.

But there’s more. With social justice and compassion comes civic engagement. And as many universities are seeking a greater way for students and others to build connections with the needs of their communities, students of religious and spiritual identity who are fostered in a religious experience of justice are highly likely to be a part of the university’s civic engagement efforts. Consider who on your campus just came back from a spring break trip that had anything to do with helping others.

Rhonda and Douglas Jacobsen, in their book No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education, speak to this civic engagement as one of six “sites of engagement” that religious groups may have a better grasp at than higher education institutions. The potential for partnership is tremendous amongst these groups and the university. And Romero’s theology does not just represent Catholics or Christians, but speaks to the broader call to care for one another across religions. Rabbi Hillel, once asked to recite the whole of the Torah while standing on one foot, obliged with the following. “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor. All the rest is commentary.”

Today’s higher education can learn much from realizing that Oscar Romero is not an isolated figure for Catholic theology, but is a great influence on many Christians across the world. His values speak beyond Christianity though, into the compassion that other traditions embody and that higher education seeks as we train and prepare global citizens. Persons like Romero can be a catalyst for our religious and spiritual members of campus looking for an example and can for us be a way to foster curious about spirituality on our campuses.