The Subversive Cross

On November 16, 1989, that same fateful day in El Salvador when the Jesuits were murdered, Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez was also targeted by the military. For Bishop Gomez and his Lutheran church were also voices who denounced the injustice they saw in Salvadoran society. They were deemed to be subversives by the government for siding with the poor and doing such radical things as operating a refugee camp for families fleeing the armed conflict, or for teaching the poor that they were entitled to equal human rights with the rich and powerful.

You know the government's view of your church when it sets up a machine gun post directly across the street from your church, your church named Resurrection Church – the church of Easter, and the machine gun is always aimed at the front door of the church.

A few weeks before November 16, 1989, in a special service of reconciliation, the congregation of Resurrection Lutheran Church in San Salvador was asked to lay the sins of their country upon a symbolic cross. A simple wooden cross, painted white, was placed at the front of the church. In ones and twos, congregation members came up to the cross, took a black marker, and wrote the sins on the cross, such as persecution of the church, hunger, discrimination against women, ambition for power, murder and violence. As they identified the sins of their country and their people, they also committed themselves to work toward forgiveness, and to be strengthened for liberation. The cross also carries messages of hope and love, as a testimony to the transforming power of God. After the reconciliation service, the cross remained as a symbol within the church.

On the same day when the six Jesuit priests were murdered by elite Salvadoran troops, soldiers arrived at Resurrection Church looking for Bishop Gomez. Their search did not find Bishop Gomez, but they did find that simple white cross. Bishop Gomez had managed to flee and get to safety in the German embassy and subsequently found refuge in Milwaukee. Rather than capturing the bishop, the troops arrested 15 people, and took possession of the cross and took it away to the army compound. Presumably the soldiers thought this cross was evidence of the subversive activity going on in the Lutheran church.

And as the Salvadoran Lutheran Church tells the story, the cross, with its powerful words, bore witness to those army troops as it stood in their barracks. It spoke to their hearts about the sins committed by the army during the civil war.

Following his return to El Salvador, Bishop Gomez and international partners petitioned the government for the return of the cross. And with some assistance from the US Ambassador, the cross made another journey – this time from the army quarters to the presidential residence, El Salvador's White House. And the cross continued to bear silent witness regarding to the evil and the need for reconciliation in El Salvador – this time in the seat of power of the country.

Finally the call came, the president of El Salvador, Alfredo Cristiani, a man from the political party which sponsored the death squads, wanted to return the cross. And Bishop Gomez received the cross back to Resurrection Church, where a picture of Cristiani with the bishop hangs by the cross.

Today that cross, the "Subversive Cross," continues to have a powerful significance. Many, many people who have traveled to El Salvador and visited Resurrection Church have learned the story and have been inspired by this simple white cross and all it symbolizes. On the twentieth anniversary of the soldiers taking the cross into captivity, the Salvadoran Lutheran church turns once again to the Subversive Cross to inspire and guide its work struggling for justice for the poor and dispossessed in Salvadoran society.

First published on the 20th anniversary of the Subversive Cross on November 16, 2009.


Carlos X. said…
A very potent symbol with a poignant story of what Pope Francis calls "the ecumenism of the martyrs," and what we used to call a pastoral policy of accompaniment. Thank you Lutheran Brothers for your witness and defense of the poor.