I recently came across a figure whom I had not encountered before: St. Elphege, a monk, abbot, and finally archbishop, living in England before the Norman conquest, who, like Oscar Romero centuries later, lost his life defending the lives of the poor. St. Elphege is revered as a martyr and St. Anselm of Canterbury defended the appropriateness of this title.
A short biography of Elphege is available here:
. It is worth a quick look, if only because it shows that the practice of the preferential option has been a crucial aspect of Christian witness and sanctity for quite some time and does not, contrary to some misperceptions, arise as a novelty in the twentieth century.
I have to thank my friend Jo for sending me the link to this interview.
Cornel West, as he does so well, speaks the truth to power. It strikes me as an extraordinary example of biblical prophecy in the contemporary world. I am moved by the unapologetic, deeply nuanced, and yet crystal clear preferential option for the poor:
I recently read the commencement address given by Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ in June 1982 at Santa Clara University. (Ellacuria would be killed in El Salvador just over seven years later, in November 1989, at the very university about which he speaks in this address, Universidad Centroamericana.) The talk is available here:
. Ellacuria’s words have made me reflect again on a topic which has emerged many times on this blog: namely, the preferential option for the poor. In particular, I want to ask, What role does the university play in realizing this option? And how does our theology relate to this task of the university?
Ellacuria may provide some guidance:
A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor. This does not mean that only the poor will study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of academic excellence–excellence which is needed in order to solve complex social issues of our time. What it does mean is that the universitv should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate.
What strikes me about this passage is that the realization of the option for the poor at the university is not limited to a sector of it, such as a Center for Social Concerns, as we have at Notre Dame (
), or some analogous institution. Ellacuria certainly does not deny the value of this sort of center–which, at Notre Dame, does serve the poor in concrete ways that are worthy of support. But this vital part of the university is not his focus. The things he calls for involve the university’s work as a whole. The intellectual presence of the university should have a positive outcome for the poor. Its academic excellence should provide the means to analyze the complex social realities of a world in which the majority of humankind lives in poverty. The science and the skills that the university develops and teaches should be used for those who have no access to them. The collective voice which the university has–of numerous students, faculty, staff, and administrators, whose voices are heard throughout campus–should give voice to those who have none (which means, above all, listening to them, and bringing their concerns out into the open).
Theology, as both an academic and a Christian pursuit, must have an important role to play here. But what exactly is it? It cannot be to reliquish its intellectual rigor in order to be an advocate for the poor. Rather, as Ellacuria suggests, it must put its intellectual rigor in service of the poor. Nor can it be to forsake faithful reflection on the gospel in order to make way for a secular ideology. That is far from Ellacuria’s mind. Ultimately, for Ellacuria, theology’s role at the university is this: to understand more deeply how to confront the realities of a sinful and suffering world in an authentically Christ-centered way.
Much more really needs to be said on this topic. But for now, perhaps you and I can take some time to meditate on the concluding words of Ellacuria’s address, in light of our own contexts (wherever we are):
And how do you help us [the poor]? That is not for me to say. Only open your human heart, your Christian heart, and ask yourselves the three questions Ignatius of Loyola put to himself as he stood in front of the crucified world: What have I done for Christ in this world? What am I doing now? And above all, what should I do? The answers lie both in your academic responsibility and in your personal responsibility.
There is a surprisingly rigorous insistence in Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity on something like a preferential option for the poor. And it does better than some versions of the preferential option at explaining the dialectic between universality and preference—i.e., at responding to the common objection that, since God loves everyone equally, God can’t possibly love the poor more than the rich. An absolute universality is K.’s starting point, in fact: love doesn’t count as love unless it blows away every natural distinction, unless it completely eliminates every hint of preference. But that absolute universality is offensive enough to the established order that it comes to appear as a preference for the poor.
A subtheme in this book is that human compassion—what passes for compassion among human beings—is intrinsically cruel. It only shows compassion to those who don’t really need it; those who do need it, the truly suffering, the “indescribably wretched,” are cast into the desert and ignored. Because divine compassion is genuinely universal, it shows human compassion for what it is: self-serving partiality. Thus divine compassion inevitably appears as a judgment on the well-off, the ones who claim to be showing compassion, and in favor of the forgotten. Plus, since divine compassion is infinite (whereas human compassion is only ever “to a certain degree”) and drives God to actually become one of the poorest and weakest, the well-off have no interest in joining him. On the contrary, “it is urgent for the world to preserve the appearance of being compassion; this now makes the divine compassion into an untruth—ergo this divine compassion must go” (60).
What appears as partiality (divine compassion) is actually universality; what appears as universality (human compassion) is actually partiality.
That said, this is an extremely peculiar ‘option for the poor’ in that it apparently does nothing for the poor. It’s manifestly not an issue of improving their condition, of relieving their suffering, etc.; if anything, it’s the opposite: joining Jesus, for the poor as for anyone, means more alienation, more suffering, more debasement. Part of K.’s argument in this book is that Christianity can only be believed in spite of its essential, unavoidable offensiveness, and this would seem to be the way that offensiveness looks to the poor—that while changing everything for them (or claiming to), it changes nothing.
Can this be called an option for the poor?
A couple months ago I expressed some reservations regarding how liberation theology is appropriated near the end of the Kingdom-World-Church theses posted over at Inhabitatio Dei. A bit later I posted a couple quotes from Roberto Goizueta that reinforced a couple of my points. Last week Halden noted the critiques some have made regarding the theses and their relation to liberation theology (I don’t know if he had mine in mind or not) and provided a lengthy quote from Leonardo Boff in support of the appropriation of liberation theology within the theses.
The quote from Boff illustrates very well the ways in which the authors of the theses rightfully draw upon liberation theology and the ‘church of the poor’ within their work. Contrary to ‘ecclesiocentric’ theologies, Boff, Sobrino, and others de-center the church vis-a-vis the Kingdom of God and the poor. As I mention in my first post, the de-centering of the church in view of the Kingdom is a significant point of agreement. The inclusion of the ‘church of the poor’ within this de-centering further shows the commonality with liberation theologians. These points are important and thus I do not think that the engagement with liberation theology is merely superficial.
Nevertheless, significant divergences seem to remain (and remain unaddressed in Halden’s new post, which simply reinforces the point of agreement I just described and affirmed in my original post). There were two main issues I raised that still remain.
First, it is stated in thesis 11 that the preferential option not only lies at the center of the mission of the church, it is the mission. This needs to be further explored, as the general flow of the theses does not seems to support this claim. I illustrated this in my first post by looking the critical reading of liturgy in the 4th thesis. Many liberation theologians offer critiques of liturgy and ritual in a way that flows directly from the preferential option for the poor . They worry that liturgy can devalue human action in such a way that we become passive before God and pacified before oppression. The critique of liturgy in the 4th thesis does not seem to be shaped in the slightest by the preferential option as the mission of the church; rather the danger of liturgy and the devaluation of God’s action the temptation of (ecclesial) self-aggrandizement.
The second has to do with what is meant by “church of the poor” or the “preferential option.” Although the theses still need to be expanded, I think we can see the authors affirming the preferential option in terms of ethics/solidarity and for our understanding of God (in theses 10 and 11). The further question is whether or not (or how) they understand the preferential option in terms of theological method. This aspect is absolutely essential within Latin American liberation theology (including in Sobrino’s No Salvation Outside the Poor, the work cited in thesis 11). This aspect was shown in one of the quotes from Goizueta in my earlier post (“The preferential option for the poor is nothing other than the assertion that the crucified people of history are the privileged mediators of God’s mercy in the church and in the world. The crucified people are the privileged historical mediation of the crucified and risen Christ in the world. When they extend mercy, they embody Christ’s own offer to the apostles after the resurrection: ‘Peace be with you’”). It is also clear in Sobrino’s affirmation of the preferential option as ‘pre-theological’; and even clearer in Juan Luis Segundo: the option for the poor is the hermeneutical key for the Gospel, “the antecedent element required in order to interpret the gospel and keep its letter from killing”; “the epistemological premise for an interpretation of the word of God”; “the human attitude that we adopt, on our own responsibility and at our own risk, toward the Word of God, before reading that Word” (Segundo, “The Option for the Poor” in Signs of the Times, 120, 122, 126). For Goizueta, Segundo, Sobrino, and many others, the preferential option demands not only a different way of being Church (the focus of the theses), but also a very different way of doing theology (not represented in the theses).
A further point related to this which needs to at least be mention (and it is gestured at in Halden’s newest post in his concern about Boff’s notion of ‘mediation’) is the view of the poor as ‘sacraments’ of God. This is shown well in the Goizueta quote above. The way this is often described within liberation theology would seem to go against the apocalyptic, Barthian shape of the theses as a whole, and yet it shapes the methodology of many liberation theologians in a way that I assume would not be acceptable within the theses.
The theses are, of course, theses. They await further development and Halden’s latest post promises us further exploration. As they develop their notions of the preferential option and the church of the poor, I hope they not only continue to draw on the points of agreement mentioned at the beginning, but also focus in on those points where they seem to diverge significantly with essential aspects of Latin American liberation theology.