Home > Uncategorized > A note on “Kingdom-World-Church,” thesis 11

A note on “Kingdom-World-Church,” thesis 11

This post is a few weeks too late (sorry, I’ve been busy with other things!) but I wanted to take a look at the appeal to Jon Sobrino and the affirmation of the preferential option for the poor in the “Kingdom-World-Church” theses over at Inhabitatio Dei (particularly theses 10-11). In my reading, the affirmation of the preferential option and the quotation from Sobrino function in two main ways within the theses. First, the preferential option is affirmed as an ethical/political imperative and essential to what it means to witness to Christ as a church. Second (and I think more important within the aims of the theses), it is further support of the view that mission precedes church. The whole set of theses are set in opposition to “ecclesiocentric” theologies. In the earlier theses we have a generally Barthian de-centering of the church/sacraments/religion vis-a-vis the apocalyptic act of God in Christ. In Sobrino and others, we have a de-centering of sorts but this time vis-a-vis the poor. To be church is to be in the world and to live in kenotic solidarity with the poor. These are significant points of agreement. Nevertheless, I wonder if these two perspectives really fit together as well as the theses make it seem. Let me elaborate.

Thesis 11 concludes with the following: “With the Catholic bishops at Medellin, the church must reaffirm and exercise the ‘preferential option for the poor.’ This ‘preferential option’ is not simply one of many tasks of the church—it lies at the center and heart of its mission. In fact, it is its mission, because this is Christ’s mission.” Saying that the preferential option is at the center and heart of the church’s mission (and is the mission) seems overstated within the general flow of the theses. It seems that the most basic mission of the church in the theses is to witness to the apocalyptic transformation accomplished by God in Christ, which may include the preferential option, but is not identical with it.

Thesis 4 is indicative of the differences here. In this thesis, the danger of liturgy is to see a direct correspondence between our work and divine work, to see it as our (successful) seeking after God. The danger is an idolatrous misconstrual of our place in the event of God’s grace.  Liberation theologians also offer very strong critiques of ritual and liturgy (see, for example, Segundo’s The Sacraments Today) but in a different key, and one that flows directly from the preferential option as the mission of the Church. Their central critique is not that liturgy raises our action too high but rather that it devalues human action by ideologically focusing our attention on the reconciling action of God in liturgy and away from the demand to build the Kingdom beyond the liturgy. The relationship between idolatry and ideology is complex and they mutually reinforce one another; I do not want to imply that the emphasis on idolatry in thesis 4 is contrary to a concern with ideology (the discussion of the ‘world’ indicates that the authors would share the concern of liberation theologians that liturgy can offer an ideological sense of security and reconciliation outside of the world). Rather, my initial point is simply that if the preferential option is truly the center of the church’s mission, the critique of the liturgy in thesis 4 would look rather different.

More pointedly, I wonder if the invocation of Sobrino may conceal a deeper substantial disagreement with him about what the preferential option actually means. In particular, there are a number of issue that revolve around the preferential option as a methodological prescription for theology:

  • Sobrino affirms the preferential option as pre-theological (see Jesus the Liberator, 33 and Christ the Liberator, 18), as an option made prior to hearing the word of God and as an option which shapes the way in which we hear that word (other passages complexify this but the point remains)
  • The poor, the martyrs, the crucified are seen as the proper and necessary place for understanding Jesus and thus to do theology one must get to know the poor
  • The poor are the sacrament of God and the presence of Christ among us

I also wonder how the authors react in general to different construals of the relationship between human and divine action in liberation theologians. Sobrino does affirm the kenotic act of Jesus Christ for our salvation but part of this kenosis is that the ongoing presence of Christ in history is dependent upon our action (CL, 165-169). That would seem to be at odds with the theses’ Barthian emphasis on the absolute priority of divine action. Divine gratuity is certainly important in liberation theology (this is particularly clear in Gutiérrez’s On Job and We Drink from Our Own Wells) but I wonder whether  the strong emphasis on “building the Kingdom” or a utopian, future oriented vision would be acceptable to the authors of “Kingdom-World-Church”.

I raise these questions as someone who is currently working on bringing together the work of Sobrino and Balthasar. It is clear that many connections are there to be made as there would be between Sobrino and a generally” Barthian” theology. Nevertheless, the more I engage both discourses the more I see their sharp differences. I wonder if use of Sobrino and the affirmation of the preferential option for the poor in thesis 11 indicates real agreement but also passes over perhaps more fundamental disagreement.

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